By Ted Jou
In early 2008, rumors began to circulate among Magnet teachers, students, and parents that budget cuts from Montgomery County Public Schools would negatively affect the Magnet Program at Montgomery Blair High School. By March, the nature of the cuts became more clear, and the Magnet began to brace for the loss of teacher planning periods and the likely elimination of a few teaching positions.
Several groups began to organize to try to stop the budget cuts. Rosanne Hurwitz, a Magnet parent, began a Blair Magnet Budget Issues listserv. Her son started a Save the Magnets! website. Several students collaborated to start a Magnets United! blog. Louis Wasserman, another Magnet student, started a Protect the MBHS Magnet Program Facebook Group. Students testified before the County Council in April, and along with supporters of the Richard Montgomery IB Program and the Poolesville Magnet, they marched from the County Council to the Board of Education (see photos). With signs like "Save the Magnets" and "We can do the math," students took their concerns to the streets in support of the program that they loved. Members of the community wrote letters to local newspapers, including alumni, students, and parents. One alumna had her letter published in the Washington Post. Students also organized a letter-writing campaign to the Board of Education and the County Council. While these efforts generated a lot of publicity for the Magnet's budget woes, the County officials were not swayed. The budget cuts were sustained, and several Magnet teachers retired. They were not replaced, and every teacher remaining faced a heavier load for the 2008-09 school year.
Alongside the protest planning and the blog entries, some people began discussing a long-term solution. While there were political issues hurting the Magnet's cause, the underlying problem was really a lack of money. Protests alone could not secure the long term future of the Magnet; the Magnet needed a permanent supporting organization and a stable source of funds.
Kelly McQuighan, a 2002 graduate of the Magnet now teaching at a private school in Boston, solicited volunteers from various mailing lists and began to organize a group through e-mail. She began corresponding with Beth Kaufman, the mother of two current Magnet students (and a magnet alumna) and a lawyer in Washington, DC. Ted Jou, a 1999 graduate of the Magnet, was working at another law firm only a few blocks from Beth's office, and he began helping Beth to research legal issues surrounding the creation of a foundation to support the Magnet. Jesse Jou, a 2002 graduate of the Magnet working as an investment banker in New York City, provided financial insights and worked with Kelly to research educational foundations at other schools. Louis Wasserman, the magnet senior who had led most of the protest efforts, tapped his network of volunteers and provided the student perspective on the the Magnet's needs. Eileen Steinkraus, the former Magnet Coordinator, brought invaluable historical knowledge and helped keep the group organized. Magnet teachers, including David Stein, Bob Donaldson, Ralph Bunday, and Nannette Dyas, also joined the effort and provided energy and inspiration. Mr. Stein coined an unofficial motto for this group: "keeping a special program special."
This informal group of alumni, parents, students, teachers and administrators discussed ideas over e-mail for several weeks, and unofficially named themselves the Magnet Foundation Steering Committee. In mid-April, they decided to officially name their project the "Montgomery Blair High School Magnet Foundation," and Beth went to work drafting the legal documents. With the Foundation ready for formal incorporation, the Steering Committee met in person (and by phone) for an official meeting at Beth's house in Bethesda on the evening of May 22nd, 2008. Kelly and Jesse presented their findings regarding foundations supporting other schools like Thomas Jefferson in Virginia and Montgomery County schools like Churchill, B-CC, and Walter Johnson. Mr. Bunday agreed to serve as the Foundation's President. Ms. Steinkraus agreed to be the Vice-President. Beth Kaufman was named the General Counsel and Ted Jou the Secretary. The officers signed the legal documents, and the steering committee developed a rough plan of action for the future. On May 28, 2008, the Montgomery Blair High School Magnet Foundation was formally incorporated in the state of Maryland.
The Foundation still needed a Treasurer, and Ms. Steinkraus suggested Emily Van Loon, the mother of two magnet alumni who had helped raise money when transportation funds for Wallops Island were frozen a few years ago. Ms. Van Loon worked for a non-profit helping the homeless in Washington, DC, so she had a lot of experience soliciting donations and managing charitable funds. Ms. Dyas also joined the Board, and on July 16, 2008, the Montgomery Blair High School Magnet Foundation Board of Directors held its first official meeting. The Board discussed the future plans for the Foundation, and began spreading word about the Foundation to administrators, teachers, parents, and alumni. In September, the Board added two additional members, Emily Yanisko, a 1998 graduate of the Magnet and an education graduate student at Maryland teaching high school math in Prince George's County, and Dan Shepherdson, a government lawyer and father of two current magnet students.
Emily Van Loon was able to collect the remaining funds from the earlier Wallops Island fundraising effort, and deposited that money in a new account she opened for the Foundation. Ted created a web site, set up accounts for online donations and began building a database of contacts. On October 14, 2008, the Board of Directors developed a mission statement. On November 21, 2008, Beth received word that the IRS had granted the Foundation's application for tax exemption under 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. In the span of six months, the Foundation had grown from an idea in cyberspace to a public charity with a growing bank account and a clear mission.
As the Foundation grew, however, the County budget shrunk. Funding for all extracurricular travel was cut, and this left many of Blair's academic teams in dire straits. In January 2009, the Foundation considered its first grant applications from Magnet teachers and awarded funds to Ms. Dvorksy to support the ACSL All-Star Team and to Mr. Walstein for the Montgomery County ARML team. The generosity of donors to the Foundation more than paid for those costs. Soon after making those grants, Emily Van Loon had to resign from the Board because her work with the homeless had begun to demand more of her time as economic conditions worsened. Dan Shepherdson volunteered to fill the role of Treasurer, and the Foundation did not miss a beat. Looking to the future, the Magnet still faces many challenges, including a coming need for more computers, cutbacks on funding for eighth period, and the possibility of more teaching reductions in the coming years. The Foundation hopes to serve as a backstop against some of those cuts and to help organize all those who support the Magnet Program. Working together, we can all help to keep our special program special.