FAIRFIELD — A foundation begun to aid Fairfield schools is shutting down after donating no money, having its nonprofit status suspended and holding a California Candy Festival fundraiser that lost money.
Jim Dunbar, president and a board member the Fairfield and Suisun Public Education Foundation, said some people may have expected the nonprofit to be a white knight helping public schools body slammed by budget cuts.
“Everybody wanted it to succeed,” he said of the foundation. But, Dunbar added, “We couldn’t get traction – to first base.”
“The airplane didn’t get off the ground,” he said. “It didn’t have the wings. It didn’t have the engine. It didn’t have the fuel.”
Curt Johnston, a board member and president when the foundation formed in 2009, agrees.
“It didn’t work,” Johnston said. “It’s really a lesson in what not to do.”
“It’s inconceivable that this happened,” he added. “But it did.”
The two-day California Candy Festival fundraiser in 2012 at Jelly Belly in Fairfield lost money and Johnston, along with other foundation board members, paid out of their own pockets so that the nonprofit wouldn’t be in debt, he said.
Johnston said he wrote checks totaling about $29,250 from his own personal account and that other board members contributed their own funds as well. Johnston said the money was given to the foundation in part so it would have no debt.
“I’m a Christian,” he said. “I try to give what I need to give.”
“I ran the festival,” Johnston added. “It was my responsibility.”
Dunbar praised Johnston’s generosity.
“He’s a very standup guy,” Dunbar said. “He didn’t want to see the foundation fail.”
The Internal Revenue Service in May 2012 revoked the tax exempt status of the foundation after no tax forms were filed for three consecutive years. The state Franchise Tax Board suspended the foundation in August 2012.
“That happened as a result of I’ll say inadequate management not realizing what the deadline was,” Johnston said. “We were given some bad information about what deadlines were.”
Johnston said the foundation, whose board members served without pay, understood it had another year to file the required forms.
Board members didn’t learn of the state’s suspension of the foundation until after the 2012 California Candy Festival fundraiser, he said.
“If we knew our nonprofit status had been suspended,” Johnston said, “we wouldn’t have been asking for money.”
Foundation president Dunbar said of the state suspension that, “We were, as a group, caught blindsided.”
Johnston said the candy festival, after running a single day in 2011, was a two-day event the next year. About 10,000 people attended over the weekend and 5,000 more were necessary to break even, he said. Moreover, the event mistakenly relied upon a promoter rather than looking to local residents, he said.
“Community events have to start at the grass-roots level and grow,” Johnston said. “We didn’t build community support.”
Promoter Richard Garwacki of Event Gurus in San Francisco did not return phone calls and emails asking about the candy festival.
Sonoma County resident Bonnie Black in a small claims filing in Solano County Superior Court contended the foundation owed her $8,692 for her organizing work on the 2012 California Candy Festival. Johnston said Black worked for the promoter but wanted the foundation to pay her.
“It was literally withdrawn,” Johnston said of Black dropping the small claims filing earlier this year.
Black said she didn’t believe she could prevail.
“I just gave up,” she said. “I just walked away from it.”
She said she couldn’t fight the foundation.
“They were a powerful group of very successful businessmen,” said Black, who didn’t file any other legal actions involving the money she contended was due her.
The foundation put on a candy festival fundraiser after losing its nonprofit status and can’t claim ignorance about the problem that posed, she contends.
“This isn’t a bunch of PTA moms,” she said.
Johnston said a mediator told Black on the day of the small claims court hearing that she wouldn’t win her case and that her dispute was with the promoter rather than the education foundation.
“It wasn’t because we’re some powerful businessmen,” Johnston said of the case ending. “She didn’t have a contract with us.” The promoter hired Black and was responsible for her pay, Johnston said.
Johnston, executive director of the Solano Community College Educational Foundation, began that post last year and said a lot of successful nonprofit fundraising – including his work with Bethany Lutheran School in Vacaville – came before the Fairfield and Suisun Public Education Foundation.
“This is one failure,” he said. “I’ve had some tremendous successes.”
The candy festival, no longer a nonprofit fundraiser and now named the Candy Palooza, took place Sept. 28-29 at Jelly Belly and attracted about 14,000 visitors, said Tomi Holt, spokeswoman for Jelly Belly. The Fairfield-based corporation was the site for the event when the education foundation put on the fundraisers with Jelly Belly’s only role as host, Holt said.
For eight years, ending in 2008, downtown Fairfield was the site of a candy festival supported by $25,000 in tax dollars. The festival ended when city funding stopped.
A spring 2011 candy festival planned by the foundation fell apart and left about $9,000 in debt, Johnston said. The event was held that fall and broke even. The foundation fundraising, Dunbar said, intended to aid schools programs including the arts.
John Anderson, a board member of the Fairfield and Suisun Public Education Foundation until 2012, said the nonprofit leaves a legacy.
“The one thing that has come out of it,” he said, “is that, after a fashion, the candy festival has been reborn.”
Sandy Person, president of the Solano Economic Development Corp. and among people involved with that foundation at its start, said the nonprofit’s end is unfortunate and a surprise.
“I’m sorry to hear that it hasn’t been able to sustain itself,” she said.
Dunbar said this might be a better time to undertake fundraising for Fairfield schools – and that such an effort should be more focused than the education foundation.
“Maybe we didn’t give it 110 percent,” he said. “We gave 100 percent.”
Reach Ryan McCarthy at 427-6935 or email@example.com.