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'Unbelievably generous'

With an eye towards improving academics and encouraging teachers to be creative and enthusiastic -- in spite of years of lean budgets -- a group of education-minded citizens has launched a new foundation to help pay for selected academic programs in Detroit Lakes' public schools.

And the Detroit Lakes Public Education Foundation is off to a very good start -- it has already raised pledges of $120,000, nearly half its initial goal of $250,000.

Longtime DL school district business manager Dick Lundeen, who retired in 2006 after 29 years with the district, started the ball rolling in 2005, with a $2,000 award he received when he was named School Business Official of the Year by the Minnesota Association of School Business Officials.

He wanted to use the money to start a foundation to benefit the local school district, and he is now one of six people on the foundation's board of directors.

The others are Deb Wimmer, Madalyn Sukke, G.L. Tucker, Vern Schnathorst and Glenn Gifford.

The organizers raised $120,000 in pledges during the initial, "quiet phase" of fund-raising.

"Some people were unbelievably generous," Wimmer said.

The next step is to meet with school faculty and ask staff to join a payroll deduction plan, similar to the payroll deduction plan used by the United Way to make giving easier.

"The step beyond that," Lundeen said, "is to make it more public. There's already a lot of interest out there. People are asking us what it's all about, we're hearing 'that makes a lot of sense -- I'm supportive of that,'" he said.

Once the foundation is fully funded, the interest generated will go to pay for special projects and programs that teachers request through mini-grant applications.

The Fargo school district has an academic foundation, and recently funded a teacher's project to show kids the effects of zero gravity, which involved using diving equipment and the swimming pool at North High School, Wimmer said.

"It was a really creative way of teaching that," Wimmer said. "When you cut, cut, cut every year, when finances are always tight, creativity goes out the window, (because) teachers know there's no money for it, anyway," Wimmer said. "Our teaching staff is excellent, they're very creative, but they've been stifled by cut, cut, cut..."

The funds could potentially be used for all manner of things -- a gifted program, art education, reading recovery, technology enhancements, foreign languages, equipment and supplies, student wellness, student organizations, after-school programs, and math and reading tutors, for example.

Starting Dec. 31, the foundation will take up to 20 percent of cash in its pool and grant teacher requests, Lundeen said. He expects there to be about $100,000 in cash at that time (not all pledges are sent in right away), which would mean $20,000 was available for mini-grants.

"We want teachers to get excited about this the first year," he said. "We don't want to wait until the endowment gains interest in three to five years."

After the first year, the foundation will rely on interest income to make its grants.

There's nothing capping the fund at $250,000 over three years, that's just the initial goal, Wimmer aid.

"I would love to see it over $1 million," she said.

"There will be a point in the future when this will be a much more important piece of financing for this school district," Lundeen predicted.

The foundation board, all unpaid volunteers, will contact alumni in the future, hoping for donations to grow the fund.

"The alumni community will be a key piece," Wimmer said. "There are a lot of Detroit Lakes High School graduates who feel they really got something out of their education here, and they want to give something back."

Bequests are another possible source of donations.

The school district will need to set up a way to process requests from teachers, then a subcommittee of the foundation board will evaluate the requests and make recommendations to the full board, Lundeen said.

The tax-exempt, 501(c)(3) foundation is administered by the West Central Initiative, which already handles a handful of other area foundations.

"All money is channeled to them," Lundeen said. "They invest the money and safeguard it. They do all the reporting required by the IRS."

In short, West Central Initiative will provide the financial infrastructure, including teaching board members how to conduct successful fund-raising campaigns, and how to best frame questions for the public -- to ensure the foundation is being run properly, and give it the best possible chance of success.

"We're excited about this endeavor," Lundeen said. "This will reap dividends for our community for years and years to come -- it's only going to get better."

To donate, contact a foundation board member (Lundeen's number is 847-2260, and Wimmer's number is 847-9410) or send checks to: Detroit Lakes Public Education Foundation, P.O. Box 1862, Detroit Lakes, MN, 56501.