Members of the Brinckerhoff Elementary School PTO sat in silence last November, stunned by the news delivered by Principal Jerry Husted. A safety inspector had examined the Fishkill, N.Y., school’s sprawling wooden playground, built by the PTO 15 years earlier. The inspector, Husted said, recommended that it be closed and demolished immediately because it failed to meet new safety standards. A castle-like structure that featured slides, overhead ladders, and “secret passages,” the Brinckerhoff playground was a landmark in the community and a source of pride to the PTO.

There’s more bad news, Husted added. Because of the tight budget and the projected $50,000 price tag for repairs, the district could not afford to fix or replace the playground. The bottom line: If Brinckerhoff parents wanted something more than swings and an all-purpose athletic field, they would need to raise the money on their own.

PTO President Amy Pragana took the situation as a challenge. “I was sorry to see the playground close, but the way I see it, you can’t complain about things not getting done. You need to find a way to make things happen,” she says.

Pragana wanted a go-getter to lead the playground committee. She chose former PTO President Kathy Jennings. Like most parents and students at Brinckerhoff, Jennings was disappointed when she heard the playground had to be demolished. “Whenever you talked to people in the area about Brinckerhoff, they always said, ‘Oh, that’s the school with the neat playground.’ And if you look at the biographies the kids wrote in the Brinckerhoff yearbook at the end of last year, almost 90 percent of them talked about how much they missed the playground. So when I was approached to take on the assignment, I had to say yes because I wanted to help the kids get a playground they would enjoy.”

Experienced Partners

The Brinckerhoff PTO members knew that raising $50,000 required a lot more than a positive attitude. They also knew that Brinckerhoff’s traditional fundraising activities—the semiannual book fair, their share of the proceeds from the sale of school pictures, and an annual sale of merchandise—would not yield enough additional revenue to replace the playground. So they created a plan that focused on a powerful fundraising tool: building community partnerships.

The PTO members knew the benefits of partnerships from experience. They knew that partnerships provide a way for the community to learn about their school and a way for their children to learn about the community. They knew this mutual understanding makes both the school and the community stronger. They knew this because for years PTO representatives have been active members of the Brinckerhoff School Leadership Team, a group of five parents and five teachers who meet monthly to review the academic needs of the school. The SLT was created in the early 1990s in response to a state Board of Regents directive. The regents wanted to ensure broad-based involvement in the improvement of academics in New York schools. Brinckerhoff’s SLT has developed several business partnerships that provide students with a wide array of learning opportunities.

Brinckerhoff’s partnership with US Cablevision resulted in BESTV, an in-house TV network that students use to broadcast the news every morning. The Fishkill Post Office helped Brinckerhoff institute Wee-Mail, which allows students to exchange letters within the school. A group of 33 small, local merchants helped set up Brinckerhoff’s school store, while the TEG Credit Union established a Brinckerhoff “branch office” managed by students. IBM, which has a plant in the district, provided the first set of computers installed in the Brinckerhoff library.

Finding Help

Once the Brinckerhoff PTO and Principal Husted applied their can-do attitude to coming up with new fundraisers and seeking new partnerships, doors opened for them. Husted recalls, “Once the PTO members and people in the community knew that we were open to new ideas and looking for new partners, new ideas and new partners poured in.”

PTO members reached out to establish partnerships with local businesses in the school district, ranging in size from a small family-owned candy shop to Wal-Mart. These businesses, many of which were owned or managed by PTO members, gladly donated door prizes that could be raffled at PTO meetings, concerts, and other school-sponsored fundraisers or offered food the PTO could sell at various events. The ideas for new fundraisers came from parents, teachers, and community members. Brinckerhoff’s new fundraising events included the Brinckerhoff Art Auction, the World’s Largest Game of Musical Chairs, and a car raffle that was made possible when an enterprising parent persuaded a local auto dealer to sell a new car at cost to the PTO.

The Art Auction netted $3,000 from admissions and a 25 percent commission for each piece of artwork sold. The game of musical chairs raised more than $7,800 after $1,000 was paid in prizes. And the car raffle, which became a 50/50 raffle (the winner and the PTO split the proceeds) when not enough tickets were sold to cover the cost of the car, netted $8,300. A key aspect of these fundraisers was that in addition to netting $19,000-plus, each of them engaged the entire community in the construction of the new Brinckerhoff playground. The PTO also used an approach borrowed from public broadcasting outlets, asking businesses for “matching funds.” This raised an additional $10,000.

The Town Pitches In

Husted suggested the PTO approach civic leaders to see whether the Fishkill town government would be interested in helping the school build a new playground. Pragana liked the idea because she saw the new playground as a resource for the town as well as the school. “The school district has so many other things they need to buy for the classroom. It just seems to me that the town should help us pay for the playground, since kids in town have use of it when school is closed. I think this town needs more parks, and I know that in a lot of places the towns and school districts work together to use the school playgrounds as town parks.”

Town Supervisor Joan Pagones, a former Brinckerhoff PTO member, concurred. “Whenever a municipality and a school district combine forces, it has to be good for the town,” she says. “The Town of Fishkill offered an after school recreation program at the school, and I know that the old playground was a landmark in the community. We had to help replace it.”

Jennings was equally enthusiastic about working with the town. She hoped the playground partnership with Fishkill might expand the town’s recreation offerings in the Brinckerhoff area. “I really liked the idea that the town might be able to have its summer program at the school once we got the playground installed,” she says. As she worked on the small committee that helped design the playground, Jennings felt that working with the town was a big help. “I had a lot of work to do, especially on the day we installed the playground, when I needed to get 90 volunteers. But the town was wonderful. They got everything together for the installation and were very helpful that day.”

Everyone won in the town-school partnership. The Brinckerhoff students got a new playground. The PTO got $7,800 from the musical chairs fundraiser the town organized and the use of the town’s equipment and in-kind labor that saved on the cost of installing the playground. The taxpayers won because two publicly funded agencies worked together to save on the cost of the playground. Most important, the community won because they worked harmoniously on a project that generated pride among all the citizens. “It was as gratifying to see the entire community get behind this project as it was to see the new playground,” says Husted.

This school year the final phase of Brinckerhoff’s new $80,000 playground is set to open. The Brinckerhoff PTO’s decision to work with business partners and to form a partnership with the Town of Fishkill helped them raise money, expanded their vision, gave their students a summer program, and unified the community.

One note of caution: Using partnerships didn’t make the work for the Brinckerhoff PTO leaders any easier, but it did expand the PTO’s rewards. The group not only built a new playground for the students, they also built a bridge to the community. “It was a lot of work,” says Jennings, “but the town was wonderful to work with. They got everything together for us when we put the playground together. The outcome makes me look back and feel good, even though the work was difficult.”

Building Partnerships

How can your PTO develop partnerships with local businesses and the local government in your community to help build your playground? If you have the Brinckerhoff can-do attitude, which is a pre-requisite, here are some pointers.

Plan: The adage “plan your work and work your plan” applies to playground partnerships. There are a host of decisions your PTO needs to make and details your PTO needs to iron out before you approach prospective partners for contributions. What will your playground look like? How much will it cost? Who will handle the bids? Who will coordinate the work? Most important, what role does your PTO want the partner to play? There will be myriad decisions to make and details to work out, and developing a clear action plan will help you do that. Your principal will be a key player in this process.

Connect: Remember, people run businesses and town governments. You probably have members of your PTO who know these people. It is likely that someone in your PTO owns or manages a business in town or knows someone who does. It is also likely that a member of your PTO knows someone in the town government or someone who works for the town government or someone who serves on a town committee. By making a personal connection, your PTO can get the ball rolling on a playground partnership.

Promote: Businesses and town governments want good schools with safe and attractive playgrounds. Both businesses and town governments want the support of parents in the community. When your PTO is asking for help with a playground, emphasize that you are asking for something the community needs.

Reciprocate: Partnerships work two ways. Be ready to offer some kind of in-kind service for your playground partner. You might display children’s artwork in a place of business or the town hall. You might recognize businesses in a brochure you hand out or over a loudspeaker at a public event. You might read a proclamation from the PTO at a public meeting of the town government. And both businesses and town leaders appreciate letters of thanks published in the local newspaper. Remember, people run businesses and town governments, and all people appreciate a pat on the back for a job well done.

Persist: Partnerships often take time to develop. It was fairly easy for the Brinckerhoff PTO to secure playground partners, because their school had a track record in the Fishkill community. The first partnership in any school is the hardest one. Don’t get discouraged. Patience and persistence will pay off, because business owners and town officials do want good schools with safe and attractive playgrounds.

Don’t forget your inside partners: Engage the superintendent and school board in your effort. The chances are that the superintendent and board members have personal contacts with the business community or with the local government officials.

You might also need their support if you need to have agreements about construction on school grounds or if there are questions about coverage of volunteers on school property.

The World's Largest Game of Musical Chairs

When Cindy Starke, the energetic director of the Fishkill Department of Recreation, learned that the town was going to work with the Brinckerhoff Elementary School PTO to replace the school playground, she knew they’d need to raise a lot of money quickly. Starke heard about a high school band in New Hampshire that held a fundraiser she thought would be perfect for Fishkill: The World’s Largest Game of Musical Chairs.

“Everyone knows how to play musical chairs,” she reasons. “All ages can play. You can involve everyone in the community. And best of all, it’s relatively easy to organize and has no overhead to speak of.”

With the support of the Brinckerhoff PTO and principal, Starke and her staff took off with the idea. They printed tickets; issued press releases for the event; obtained 500 folding chairs from town office, including the fire hall; and lined up the Fishkill chief of police to serve as “judge.” Starke donated money from her own pocket to get a DJ, “but if I had more lead time I could have gotten the high school band for free. A lot of those kids used the old playground when they went to Brinckerhoff and would have come to help out their old school,” she says.

While Starke took care of the logistics for the event and organizing the community, the Brinckerhoff PTO issued two tickets to each child in the school, collected the ticket money, handled the accounting, and publicized the event in the school community.

More than 900 people paid $10 a ticket to play musical chairs on the site of the Brinckerhoff playground on a May afternoon. As the contestants scrambled for seats, Starke was glad she had a good referee. “The chief of police was great,” she says. “No one was going to argue with him. He did a really good job when people started scrambling for chairs near the end of the contest, and I know he had fun doing it.”

A grandmother won the $500 first prize, a Brinckerhoff mother took home the $300 second prize, and a Brinckerhoff student came in third, winning $200. Everyone got a Tootsie Pop and a chance to participate in an event the town will be talking about for years to come. With only a month lead time because the school year was coming to an end, the town of Fishkill raised more than $8,000 for the Brinckerhoff PTO.

Starke’s advice to those planning an event like this: “Get as much of the community involved as you can, and give yourself time to plan. The more time you have to sell tickets, the more time you have to promote the event and engage the community, and the more money you can make because the overhead won’t get any bigger. I think if a school started working on this event in September, they could have the whole community on board by November, and there’s no telling how much a school could raise.”

Playground Funds

Donations from:




School District

$ 8,000

Musical Chairs

$ 7,800

Art Auction

$ 3,000

50/50 Raffle

$ 8,300

Other Fundraisers