(Photo by Nina Dym)
Breakthrough students perform a skit during the program’s spirit week last summer. A minute later, the students burst through the banner, which represented the ACT, a standardized test that many of them will take in high school.

In August, the Board of Trustees ended financial support for Breakthrough Sacramento, a year-round program that supports low-income middle and high schoolers, citing its large deficit and uncertain outside funding as unsustainable for the school.

But Breakthrough was not always in this precarious financial situation.

Former headmaster Stephen Repsher said that in the early ‘90s and for a few years into his tenureship, Breakthrough’s budget broke even, meaning SCDS provided only in-kind services and did not have to cover any of Breakthrough’s expenses.

Kelley Taber, president of the Board of Trustees, also confirmed that Breakthrough’s annual budget broke even a few times when outside support was strong.

According to chief financial officer Bill Petchauer, the budget broke even in five fiscal years: from 1998-2002 and in 2004-5.

So what caused Breakthrough to lose its financial prosperity?

Breakthrough’s financial state became increasingly stable in 1999, when the Sacramento County Office of Education (SCOE) started sponsoring Breakthrough.

The SCOE grant annually contributed an average of about $98,000, about half of Breakthrough’s budget, according to former Breakthrough director Adolfo Mercado, who began in 2005.

SCOE’s largest donation was $129,500 in 2002.

Mercado said that the grant money allowed Breakthrough to line up with the Breakthrough National standard for all programs. Thanks to SCOE, Breakthrough went from not only teaching the summer program but also hosting a year-round college adviser service and after-school classes for Breakthrough students.

The $17,000 budget increase for new year-round teacher salaries and materials was manageable, according to Mercado, because of the grant.

Not only did the grant strongly support Breakthrough, but it also made Sacramentans more aware of the program, according to former Breakthrough advisory board member Gail Graham.

“This partnership galvanized the reputation of SCDS in the broader community as a measure of commitment to promoting quality education for all students,” Graham said.

(Photo by Nina Dym)
Writing teacher Alexander Hilts helps a seventh grader during STEM week. On math day, students made boats and airplanes. The boats were placed in a tub and had washers on them to see how much they would hold before sinking.

During the period of SCOE’s financial support, Breakthrough’s budget increased from about $175,000 to more than $225,000 due to the addition of more faculty mentors, a two-week extension of the summer program and an increase in salaries and benefits for staff. Repsher said that Breakthrough Sacramento had to increase teacher salaries to match other Breakthrough programs’ teacher pay for recruitment purposes, but these increases in the budget were not considered dramatic enough to cause concern.

In 2010, however, former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger cut $5.8 billion from the California education system, forcing the SCOE grant to end. At that point, the office had given Breakthrough almost $817,300.

Mercado said he remembers the meeting he and Repsher attended when SCOE announced that they would be ending the grant.

“We walked in blind,” Mercado said. “I was shocked.”

Mercado was on the board of the California Student Opportunity and Access Program at the time of the cut, so while he knew that cuts were being made to all program donations, he said he did not think that SCOE would take such drastic action.

In response to the sudden cut, Breakthrough scrambled to apply for financial assistance from the Sacramento City Unified School District, Repsher said. The district gave $65,000 in 2011 and $58,000 in 2013. But in following years, the deficit ballooned. According to Repsher, it could have been as high as $160,000 following the recession as Breakthrough struggled to find alternative financial sources.

New benefactors were hard to find during the recession because all foundations had taken major hits as well. Corporations like Intel, AmeriCorps, McClatchy Newspapers, AT&T and Wells Fargo (who Repsher and Graham said had funded Breakthrough previously) were unable to help because they were struggling with massive debts and layoffs.

Mercado said that these foundations were focused on supporting non-profit programs that they had long-term relationships with instead of taking on new programs, like Breakthrough.

In 2011, Sacramento had the third-weakest job market in the U.S. and was ranked fifth on Forbes’s list of “20 most miserable cities after the recession.” As a result, Breakthrough’s outside funding decreased by two-thirds in 2007-10, according to Taber.

Breakthrough’s reliance on year-to-year donors instead of secure sponsorship made the budget fluctuate greatly in recent years, Taber said. Some years the deficit was as low as $50,000, while other years it approached $150,000.

SCDS struggled financially during this time as well. Enrollment dropped from 557 students in 2004 to 450 in 2010. Taber said that while the lower enrollment had huge implications on the school budget, Breakthrough was never affected. In the 2009-10 school year, even though all faculty salaries were decreased by five percent, Breakthrough was kept alive.

But Mercado said this time was “nerve-wracking and scary” for Breakthrough.

“One year, I went into Mr. Repsher’s office and said, ‘Let me know if I need to start packing my bags,’” Mercado said. “But he said that Country Day would support and stand by Breakthrough, and they did.”

(Photo by Nina Dym)
Breakthrough eighth graders construct paper airplanes during STEM week. For each activity completed, the students received a pink slip. At the end of the week, five pink slips allowed students to throw pies at their teachers.

“Financially we really felt (the recession), but we also felt it in the community and culture,” Mercado said. “We were able to weather it, but those were very rough years.”

But even after Sacramento foundations healed from the recession, Breakthrough continued to have difficulty finding dependable donors. Taber said that “Sacramento’s stinginess” might have worsened Breakthrough’s chances of finding new benefactors.

According to a study by the Sacramento Regional Community Foundation mentioned in an article in Comstock’s Magazine in 2012, when it comes to charitable donations, Sacramento is one of the least generous regions in California.

The article said that not only do Sacramentans give less total money to charities than the national average, but also a smaller percentage of households donate.

Mercado said that while he finds this to be true, he thinks that Sacramento’s philanthropic interest was increasing when Breakthrough’s relationship with SCDS was terminated. The introduction of the Sacramento fundraiser The Big Day of Giving in 2015, from which Breakthrough raised around $10,000, created a buzz in the business community. But the donation still wasn’t enough.

To redouble their efforts, in 2015-16 the Breakthrough development group, — which included assistant head of school Tucker Foehl, former director of advancement Jon Cormier, Repsher and Mercado along with other SCDS parents  — met more often to find ways to raise program awareness and solicit donations. The group used advertisements, articles, televised  interviews, fundraisers and presentations to attract sponsors.

According to Mercado, these methods put Breakthrough in contact with Intel (which gave $10,000) Sacramento City Unified School District (which donated $50,000 in mid-July) and San Juan Unified District (which had planned on donating). But during the Board of Trustees’ two-year investigation of the vitality of the program, the Board and the development group did not foresee these donations becoming established sources, Taber said.

And so in June the Board told Mercado that that year would be Breakthrough’s last. Now it’s up to the newly established Breakthrough Working Group partnered to raise the money to bring it back.

By Sonja Hansen

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