[Paleopsych] NYT: The School Auction as Economic Indicator

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Mon Apr 18 20:12:19 UTC 2005

The School Auction as Economic Indicator

    There are many ways to gauge the economic recovery of New York's most
    lucrative professions, and everyone has a favorite indicator. The
    packed dining rooms of $250-a- plate-restaurants. The plethora of
    luxury hotels being converted into apartments. The mere existence of
    an $800 haircut offered on Gansevoort Street.

    But surely one of the best is the $40,000 fetched recently by Columbia
    Grammar School for a nautical-themed mural panel, made by some of its
    youngest students and sold at its annual benefit auction.

    Every spring, schools across the city hold benefit auctions to beef up
    their coffers, allowing another year of scholarships, school upkeep
    and general expenses to be met. The affairs range from the folksy -
    dance parties in the school gym - to the elaborate - a night at
    Cipriani - and pull in anywhere from just less than $100,000 to more
    than $600,000, with several Manhattan private schools netting near the
    top of the range.

    Often, as goes the stock market, so goes the annual auction take.

    "I have been here 18 years, and I can say that when things are going
    well in the economy, we tend to do well, too," said George P. Davison,
    the head of Grace Church School in Greenwich Village. "That is the
    reason for the timing of the auctions," Mr. Davison said, "because
    people don't get their bonuses until after January."

    Grace Church is still calculating its final tally from last week's
    auction but is likely to end up 8 percent higher than last year's,
    when its $460,000 net was 50 percent more than the previous year's.
    School auctions have come a long way since the late 1970's, when a
    group of families from the Trevor Day School gathered for a potluck
    dinner auction in a West End Avenue apartment, taking in $10,000.

    Today's auctions feature elaborate themes and fancy sites, as well as
    catalogs filled with summer homes in Greece, floor seats to Knicks
    games and offers for private time with popular teachers.

    "There is quite a range in terms of the amount of energy and activity
    that goes into them," said Patricia Girardi, executive director of the
    Parents League, an association that helps parents navigate the private
    school system. "Even nursery schools are able to do very handsomely."

    Auction catalogs also provide a window into the distinct cultures of
    each school.

    Chef parents, for example, often live downtown. So it is that Grace
    Church pulled in $38,000 for a dinner for 12 in the winning bidder's
    home, prepared by the fathers Danny Meyer and Tom Colicchio. And Mario
    Batali will be cooking in the home of the winning family from LREI in
    Greenwich Village.

    That school, which encompasses the Little Red School House and
    Elisabeth Irwin High School, holds two auctions. One offers only art,
    featuring parents like the artist Tom Slaughter and the photographer
    Sandi Fellman.

    At the general auction, a family can bid to have a photograph of their
    child taken with one of William Wegman's dogs. "We are very fortunate
    being a downtown school," said Pippa Gerard, the director of
    development at the school. "Many artists have sent their children

    News media people tend to flock uptown, as do random sports
    celebrities. At the Trinity School on the Upper West Side, parents can
    win tennis lessons with John McEnroe, at an event with Paula Zahn as
    the M.C. At the Dalton School, Al Roker auctioned off backstage tours
    of the "Today Show."

    The Berkeley Carroll School in Brooklyn combines the groovy
    independent film vibe - the "Sopranos" star Steve Buscemi offered a
    tour of the set - with local color. One family paid $4,000 to have
    lunch with the Brooklyn borough president, Marty Markowitz, at
    Bamonte's in Williamsburg. "The place is quintessential Brooklyn,"
    said Henry Trevor, an assistant head of the school.

    And what to say, exactly, about the Packer Collegiate Institute, also
    in Brooklyn, where $100 could get one a gift certificate to a company
    "dedicated to the spreading of sexual enlightenment through the
    promulgation of chosen playthings," as well as a guide to good sex?

    Parents volunteer to do everything from decorating the catering hall
    to checking the coats at the auctions. But in the city's most
    expensive schools, some parents squirm in their seats as the
    wealthiest among them battle with their paddles to win vacations at
    holiday homes in Italy, chartered sailboat rides, private time with
    the school director and the science teacher's hazelnut cake recipe.

    "It is a nice community event," said one Grace Church parent, who
    spoke on the condition of anonymity. "But you better have money in
    that community. If you were a family getting any degree of
    scholarship, who is just scraping by to send your kid here, it would
    have been a lot to take." At Dalton, several parents say they do not
    even consider attending the auction, considering that tickets are
    about $200.

    Occasionally, bridges are burned, bad karma invited. Sometimes someone
    drinks too much, overbids and then cannot pay the next morning, one
    school director said. At an Upper East Side nursery school one year, a
    group of parents who were officers in their respective companies
    donated 10 shares of stock each to create a miniportfolio. The buyer,
    according to one parent, eagerly paid up, and then immediately shorted
    all the shares, showing a lack of confidence in his peers' companies.

    Some schools are trying to tone down the auction fever. Trinity, for
    example, canceled its live auction in 2003 in favor of a benefit with
    a small silent auction.

    "We came to the conclusion that the auction, from a fund-raising point
    of view, was very successful," said Myles Amend, director of
    development at the school. "But it was not open to the entire
    community. As we talked among ourselves, there was just a sort of
    general level of discomfort with the auction process."

    John McEnroe still auctioned off tennis lessons last week, Mr. Amend
    said, just silently. "It has made a big difference in bringing the
    school community together," he said. "You want fund-raisers that are
    friend raisers."

    At the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, the auction is now done
    online, with eBay as a model.

    And the proceeds from tonight's auction at St. Hilda's and St. Hugh's
    in Morningside Heights will all be donated tsunami victims in a
    village in India, the first time the school has ever donated its
    auction kitty.

    But some things about auctions may never change. The most coveted
    items remain the homemade projects fashioned by the school's children.
    Many schools have children make a quilt of some sort; others do murals
    like the one at Columbia Grammar.

    This year, for example, St. David's, the boys' school on the Upper
    East Side, sold a quilt made by second graders for $30,000, the
    highest amount ever fetched for a school project, according to Maureen
    Barry, the director of development there.

    "Somehow it seems pure to bid on a quilt," said Anne Goldrush, who
    runs her own real estate company and once was co-chairwoman of the
    auction at Christ Church Nursery School.

    "It is almost something about the sentimentality about it that allows
    people to feel free to go nuts. And on some level, everyone wants to
    come home and tell their child that they got the quilt."

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