An Indianapolis-based charter school announced this week that it will receive an unsolicited $3 million donation from MacKenzie Scott, the ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
The discretionary gift came as a surprise to Paramount Schools of Excellence, said CEO Tommy Reddicks. The funds are already earmarked for the ongoing construction of two new school facilities.
“The first reaction—I was sure it was a scam,” Reddicks told the Indiana Capital Chronicle. “It was a random email that said there’s a philanthropist interested in our organization … and we get so many spam emails that come in. It took a few back and forths before we even got to realizing that this was legitimate.”
Paramount opened its first school in 2010. The school has since grown into a network of charter schools across Indiana.
Where the money is going
Reddicks called the sizable donation ”an amazing blessing.” Paramount Schools is currently in the middle of two renovations in South Bend and Lafayette, totaling just under $5 million, he said. At least a third of the donated money will go toward those projects.
Paramount expects to open both sites in 2023 for students in kindergarten through eighth grade.
“We were working really hard as an organization not to take out additional debt for those projects,” Reddicks said. “That was going to make us feel pretty thin from a financial standpoint until we recovered and got those schools launched and going, so it was really just a great injection of financial security for us to continue to leverage those renovations without putting our organization at risk.”
Most of the rest of the funds will help support two mall stores, called “My Learning Nooks,” operated by Paramount Schools—one in the Tippecanoe Mall in Lafayette and another in South Bend’s University Park Mall.
The storefronts serve students in grades K-8 with benchmark assessments and tutoring at no cost to families. Reddicks said the learning centers are part of Paramount Schools’ mission to “give back to the community.”
It costs about a half-million dollars a year to subsidize that effort, Reddicks said. Scott’s donation will help ensure the Learning Nooks stay open for another year.
Reddicks noted that Paramount additionally anticipates spending some of the donation dollars on marketing. Pointing to “a lot of misconceptions about what charter schools are,” Reddicks said he’s hoping to get the word out to more parents that charter schools are “a free public school option to everyone.”
“We still fight over and over and over again that parents think that they’re supposed to only go to the school that’s right next to where they live. But they can actually make further choices,” Reddicks said. “We do want to spend some money on helping educate our communities about who we are and how we work, and our successes and the fact that we’re a good option for them.”
Reddicks said it’s still not clear exactly why Scott made the donation to the school.
“That’s my No. 1 question. That’s what I wanted to know,” he said. “As an organization that’s growing and trying to pique interest in families, if there was a way for us to market to what popped off the page, I want to do that. I can only imagine it was our strong performance year after year … but unfortunately, that’s just a best guess because essentially it’s confidential.”
Scott, a billionaire philanthropist, has donated to various schools and not-for-profits in recent years.
She is notoriously secretive about her gifting selection process, however. Scott shared in a Medium post that “we invest extra time and money to elevate high-impact teams with leadership from the communities they’re serving.” She added that her team’s focus is “to support the needs of underrepresented people from groups of all kinds.”
Scott did not respond to a request for comment about the donation to Paramount Schools.
Still, the donation is not the first Scott has made in Indianapolis. In May, she gave $2.9 million to Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Central Indiana—the largest single gift from an individual donor in the organization’s history. The gift was part of a broader $122.6 million donation made to Big Brothers Big Sisters of America.
In October, she gave $2.4 million to Girls Scouts of Central Indiana as part of an $84.5 million gift to Girl Scouts of the USA.
In January 2001, the United Way of Central Indiana announced that Scott donated $25 million to the organization, the largest gift from a single donor the organization has ever received.
Although critics maintain that charter schools lack transparency and accountability, and that they rob funding from district schools, Reddicks said Scott’s donation could help change that perception.
The $3 million gift is equal to just under a quarter of Paramount Schools’ annual revenue, he said. If the school’s leaders are “good stewards of this money,” Reddicks said it will be “a really cool example of what all charter schools could do.”
“It’s an example of what can happen if we equalize funding and open up taxpayer dollars to charters. That’s an annual ongoing fight at the statehouse,” he said. “This (donation) doesn’t serve as a reason why we shouldn’t be trying to equalize pay. This is a reason to watch what we do with the money and see what charter schools could do if they’re equalized on the funding side.”
The Indiana Capital Chronicle is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that covers state government, policy and elections.