Alumni can donate to South Allegheny district through new foundation

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When the South Allegheny High School track team needs a little inspiration to run faster or jump higher, its members need look no farther than the school gymnasium.

There, on a new Gladiators Track and Field Records board, they can see what they are shooting for: Jeff Martino holds the boys record for the 200m dash in 1990 at 22.60 seconds and Alicia Guadagni holds the girls record in 2002 at 26.60 seconds.

The board, which cost about $2,000, was recently provided through a donation from alumnus Michael Kurka, a 1983 graduate.

And the district hopes to encourage other alumni to give back to their alma mater, as well.

Last week, the district received federal approval for its nonprofit South Allegheny Alumni and Friends Association so it now can receive tax-exempt donations.

Other school districts in the region, including Steel Valley and North Allegheny, have set up nonprofit foundations to encourage donations.

Laura Thomson, South Allegheny public relations coordinator, said the school board and solicitor asked her to look into establishing the foundation two years ago and it has taken that long to get the paperwork completed and approved.

Mr. Kurka, 48, of Alexandria, Va., is a senior vice president for wealth management at Morgan Stanley. He said his multi-year commitment to South Allegheny stems from the district's 40th anniversary celebration in 2006-07.

"They designated a group of Fab 40 graduates, one from each class year," he said, "and they reached out to these alumni, who achieved success in whatever their professions."

Mr. Kurka was the designated Fab 40 from the 1983 class. He could not attend the awards dinner held by the district but he was impressed by its message.

"The awards dinner was really more an inspiration to the current students ... that said even though the community had been decimated by the economy and the closed steel mills that they were capable of becoming doctors, NASA scientists or professional athletes.

"It was a wonderful concept that students could capture their dream," he said.

Mr. Kurka stayed in touch with the superintendent and Ms. Thomson and visited when he was home to see relatives.

In 2008, when the financial crisis hit and funding cutbacks were made in education, he decided to make a commitment to his alma mater, which encompasses Port Vue, Liberty, Glassport and Lincoln.

"Two years ago, I sent a letter to the superintendent that I'd like to make a donation for the next 10 years," he said.

He has funded an after-school program for boys called Gladiator Guys and a Girl Talk club for sixth-grade girls and a scorer's table -- appropriate because Mr. Kurka was a basketball standout in the district. He scored more points -- 1,681 -- than any other player in the school's history. And that was before the 3-point shot.

Ms. Thomson said the track all-star board, which includes pole vault and long jump records, is encouraging students.

"Kids are looking at the board and saying, 'I want my name up there.' So it is paying tribute to our former students' accomplishments and also inspiring our current students," she said.

"Mr. Kurka talks to us every summer and asks us what our needs are," she said. "He's a real friend of the district."

Greg Pastor is another alumnus who has given generously to the district, Ms. Thomson said. Mr. Pastor, who graduated in 1974, is the national sales director for the movie company Lionsgate. He lives in Elizabeth Borough but travels to California for work, she said.

His donations have gone to open a library media center this year.

"It's like a college student union," Ms. Thomson said of the room within the library. "It's a place for students to gather, study or relax. There are couches, a flat screen TV mounted on a wall and a PlayStation 3 game.

"He's probably donated $5,000 worth of equipment," she said of Mr. Pastor. "He's given educational movies and equipment both to the elementary and high school library."

Ann Ostroski of Glassport, who graduated from South Allegheny in 1976, was one of six alumni on the committee to help investigate and set up the foundation. She works as a facilities director for the University of Pittsburgh and saw an advertisement on the school district's Facebook page seeking volunteers.

Ms. Ostroski was instrumental in getting legal help from the Hugo Black Clinic at Duquesne Law School for the district to obtain the nonprofit status for the foundation.

"It's a complicated process to get the nonprofit status," Ms. Ostroski said. "So we had a couple interns, under the supervision of a law professor, help us."

South Allegheny has had to cut some programs in recent years because of state funding cutbacks, Ms. Thomson said, citing the after-school programs, tutoring and a computer class for senior citizens as items the district no longer can fund. The track board and scoring table also would not have been funded by the district, she said.

Ms. Thomson said the foundation hopes to be able to award some college scholarships for students as well.

"We'll look at doing some fundraising events," she said.

Ms. Ostroski believes the foundation can help fill the gaps where funding cutbacks have hurt the district, and she'd like to make sure arts funding remains for students.

"Students have to compete against districts that have more money, so they are at a disadvantage," she said.

"It was a nice school to go to and a nice place to grow up," she said of South Allegheny.

neigh_south

Debra Duncan, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.


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