This school year, tens of thousands of families are expected to enroll their children in private schools with the help of Florida tax credit scholarships. For some of them, the scholarships might not be enough to cover all of their private-school tuition, meaning they’ll have to seek financial help from their schools, or come up with money on already tight budgets.
But this school year, more than 350 children in the Tampa Bay region won’t face that conundrum, thanks to a new fundraising effort designed to bridge the gap between their scholarships and the full cost of private school tuition.
Now in its second year, the Bridge Scholarship program, a project of the Tampa-based Riley Family Education Foundation, has doubled in size.
But Scott Riley, its chairman and namesake, has plans for bigger growth in the years to come. He wants to recruit sponsors statewide, and even envisions expanding the effort into other markets with private school choice programs that could use a slight boost.
A serial entrepreneur with roots in the Tampa Bay region, he says he views the first couple years as a “beta test.”
In its first few years, the foundation cobbled together support from local donors and Catholic foundations to support students in the Diocese of St. Petersburg, the onetime home of a Catholic boarding school he credits with turning around his own educational career. He is readying a pitch to businesses: The state’s existing scholarship program can allow their money to go further. They can pick the children they support, and follow their progress.
“We’ll be tying businesses into the community, and helping kids and schools get full tuition,” he said.
A broad-shouldered, fast-talking son of an Irish Catholic from Massachusetts, Riley is founder and CEO of Financial Information Technologies, Inc., or Fintech. The company has built an electronic payments and data-processing platform for alcoholic beverage sales, and its 15-year-old business is growing. In 2010, it was named “business of the year” by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Riley says that success might never have been possible if a once-anonymous benefactor hadn’t interceded in his childhood.
Some 50 years ago, when he was growing up in Indian Rocks Beach, a collapse of the housing market fueled by a mid-’60s credit crunch led to the closure of his father’s asphalt plant. In his early adolescence, he says his family nearly lost everything, and his own academics struggled. One of his neighbors saw he needed a change in direction, and discretely financed his tuition to enroll at Mary Help of Christians, a Tampa boarding school run by Salesian fathers.
In that environment, Riley found a mentor. He discovered a love of football that eventually led to a college scholarship. The culture of the Catholic boarding school (no Friday night movie without completing the week’s studies) forced its students to focus on academics. Riley says his time at the school “taught me the value of education and that stuck with me my whole life.” Without it, “I truly don’t believe I would be running this company, or owning it, or maybe even have finished college.”
One of the goals of his education foundation is to take the generosity of his neighbor, who recognized he needed another educational option, and pay it forward. If a child needs a different environment to excel academically, their family circumstances shouldn’t be a barrier.
Riley started looking to set up a scholarship fund. Then he learned about the tax credit scholarship program, and realized he could help far more kids by bridging the gap between the scholarship amount and the full cost of private-school tuition. (Step Up for Students, which co-hosts this blog, is authorized to administer the scholarship program.)
He launched the effort with the guidance of people with experience in public education. His son and daughter, both teachers, serve on the board. The day-to-day operations are managed by Jim Madden, a former deputy superintendent in the Pinellas County School District.
The foundation funded about 175 bridge scholarships in the first year. It’s working with charitable groups like the Mary Help of Christians Foundation, which is tied to the group that once ran his former school. Bill Palmisano, Mary Help of Christians’ executive director, said thanks to the partnership, Mary Help was able to double the number of students it helped.
“They came to us last year and asked us if we’d like to make our money go further,” he said.
This year, the bridge scholarship program is expanding to help more students attend Catholic schools in the Tampa Bay region, but Riley envisions growing the operation to support schools of all types. He believes the effort won’t just help children directly. He’s looking to do what he calls “double-whammy good.” It will be better for taxpayers in the long run, he said, if disadvantaged children can find their footing early in life, and break the cycle of poverty.
He reckons every kid helped by the foundation could become “another knucklehead” who builds a company and is inspired to invest the dividends in expanding opportunities for more children. The most satisfying fruits of success, he said, are the ones that help others.
“I believe in karma, big time. I just do it because it really makes you feel good,” he said. “It’s not about how many boats and planes and people you have working for you.”