The Dark Side of School Auctions

Think about educational fundraisers, and you likely have some very refined images in your head. Maybe a tasteful wine-and-cheese at a country club, with a live string quartet playing in the background.

Nancy Wurtzel has a memory that’s a tad different. It was more like stumbling onto the set of WrestleMania.

The California mom had sent her daughter to a private, religious day school, and the annual auction was indeed set at a swanky private club. The Pinot Noir was flowing, the chatter was lively, and parents were bidding on the usual items like framed artwork by their precious little Picassos.

That’s when things started to go south.

“At the gala several parents overindulged on the alcohol, and a fistfight broke out over one of the silent auction items,” remembers Wurtzel, a public-relations executive. “One man even ended up in jail overnight for taking the framed item that was in dispute, and breaking it over another man’s head!”

But that wasn’t the end of it. Several liquored-up attendees “were guarding the bidding sheets during the silent auction,” says Wurtzel, like so many well-coiffed defensive linemen. “They wouldn’t even relinquish the pens, or move so that other people could make bids. And during the live auction, the crowd was so unruly that the seasoned auctioneer threatened to leave. It was all just over-the-top.”

Welcome to the noble, and slightly nutty, world of school auctions. With educational funding being slashed by authorities around the country – New York’s new budget just trimmed $1.3 billion from state schools, for instance – get ready for more fundraisers than ever.

The popular site has run 3,600 auctions for schools around the country, bringing in an average of $7,000 a pop for cash-strapped institutions. So far the site has raised a total of $51 million for K-12 schools, and is projecting a 45% boost in the number of this year’s auctions. “It’s a huge increase,” says spokesperson Kaijsa Kurstin. “It’s definitely linked to the desperation to find more sources of funds, as needs get greater and budgets get cut.”

But parents beware, because school auctions can boast a volatile brew of emotional ingredients. Mix in a fleet of helicopter parents, throw in Type-A strivers who want to show off their Wall Street bonuses and win any bidding war, and add a dash of pre-existing beefs between Kindergartners, and your staid little fundraiser could easily turn explosive. Toss in some discounted hooch – a common fundraising trick that’s meant to get those auction paddles flying – and you’ve just lit the match.

“As much as we say we care about all the children, everybody is eager to be the most impressive parent,” says Margaret Nelson, a professor at Vermont’s Middlebury College and author of Parenting Out of Control: Anxious Parents in Uncertain Times. “They want to show that they care more than anybody else. ‘Look at how much money I’m willing to spend on my child’s education, and recognize all the ways I’m a good parent.’ ”

There’s also a fair amount of projecting going on: If I’m a winner in bidding for a vacation week on the Cote d’Azur, then little Johnny or Janie will be a winner, too. Combine that with very real economic anxieties, and it’s easy to understand why parental emotions have been ramping up to fresh heights.

Just look at some recent auction headlines, which are less about the children and more about messed-up adults. In El Paso, a “Slave for a Day” auction sparked an angry firestorm. At a high school’s PTA fundraiser in Ohio’s Erie County, several underage kids were busted for getting blitzed and smoking pot – right under the noses of parent chaperones. And in Concord, California, police were called when three dads started squawking at each other, causing the elementary-school auction to be halted for 20 minutes while tensions simmered down.It doesn’t have to be that way, of course. Some tips on navigating the tricky waters of the school fundraiser:

Keep the alcohol to a minimum. Too much Merlot is exactly what auctioneers are hoping for. If you’re trying to stick to a bidding strategy and secure a great deal on that Hamptons cottage rental, better to remain stone-cold sober.

Team up. Instead of trying to one-up other parents with a lavish bid, think about partnering up to win an item. Not only will you cut your potential costs in half, you’ll make the evening more about camaraderie than competition.

Use cash. The bane of any balanced budget is the credit card. Painless swipe at first, painful statement later. If you leave the card at home and limit your auction bids to the cash in your pocket, you’ll have a better shot at ending the night with your monthly budget still intact.As for Nancy Wurtzel, she ended up yanking her daughter out of the Ultimate Fighting-inspired private school the following year, and placing her in public school instead. Her child is now headed to Boston University in the fall, apparently undamaged by the memory of parents gone wild.

The school auction’s organizers, meanwhile, had to look elsewhere for their next parental cage match. “Needless to say, we were never allowed to have another fundraiser at that location again.”