Starr's restaurants seek patron donations for schools

MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Posted: March 06, 2014

PHILADELPHIA The situation struck the restaurateur Stephen Starr as "sad" - a big-city public school system where teachers had to go begging for basic supplies for their classrooms.

So Starr, who started paying attention after Mayor Nutter recently implored businesses to come to the beleaguered Philadelphia School District's aid, jumped in.

Those who dine in the next month at any of Starr's 21 restaurants in the city should be prepared for an up-sell - not to a pricier bottle of wine, but to donate to the district.

Starr announced Tuesday that he was making a $25,000 donation, and was hoping to spur $100,000 in additional gifts through a "Support Our Schools" effort at his restaurants, which include Buddakan, Parc, Jones, and Morimoto.

The money will pay for multimedia labs, summer internships for high school students, and "socialized recess" programs at elementary schools, which aim to keep playgrounds safe and orderly.

After Nutter called for businesses to help, Starr said, he did a quick search of the website Donors Choose, where many district teachers make direct pleas for funding for things such as a rug for a classroom or books for an after-school program.

"It struck me how sad that was," Starr said. "I said, 'You know, we should do something.' "

For the next four weeks, every check at Starr's restaurants will include a section asking patrons to donate to the schools. Every penny of the funds will go to the district through the Philadelphia's Children First Fund, which directly supports it.

He hopes that his campaign will spur others in the restaurant industry and business community, Starr said.

The Starr deal came together very quickly, said Stacy E. Holland, the district's chief of strategic partnerships.

"He came to us and said, 'Tell me what you need,' " Holland said.

So officials suggested some areas where he might help. Starr wanted some say over how the money was spent, he said - he wanted programs where "we can actually see results. It's not going to a lot of bureaucracy."

Holland said the campaign "is not a small feat - they had to re-create the way they issue checks."

Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., a frequent patron at Starr restaurants, called the campaign "incredible."

The Starr effort meshes nicely with Hite's call for $14 million in donations from philanthropy.

Hite stressed that Starr's donation was separate from the district's larger funding issue. He has called for $320 million in new money to fund next year's budget, a sum that would require radically higher contributions from both the city and the state.

Starr said he was unfamiliar with the way the school system is funded. But "it doesn't seem right," he said. "It should not be in a major city that our children who go to public school do not have the tools to actually have a chance."

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