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Stage is set for a fund-raising barn burner May 20 in Village

Mardi Gras in May is Off the Wall this year.

The New Orleans-inspired theme has been changed for the annual street party fund-raiser benefiting La Jolla High School. But event organizers promise the same festive, fun-filled atmosphere for the block party to be held Saturday, May 20, from 6 to 11:30 p.m. in the Village.

Event Chair Candy Satterlee said the original Mardi Gras motif was changed for a variety of reasons.

“It was limiting our decorating, our colors, our theme,” she said. “So we decided to go with Off the Wall from years past.”

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Off The Wall started out with six people on a sidewalk and eventually grew to become an annual event held every Sunday on Labor Day weekend. It was a fund-raiser supporting UCSD Medical Center. The event was discontinued because it ran out of volunteers.

Headlining this year’s entertainment bill at the corner of Herschel Avenue and Wall Street is the 1970s rock band Three Dog Night. Local favorites Etc. and Slithers will also perform. Catering for the event is provided by The French Gourmet.

Artes Medical is sponsoring the event this year. For years, La Jolla High School held dinner-dance auctions at local hotels to generate money.

Satterlee said the music festival concept was not only a big departure from the typical fund-raising format, but was also a big risk.

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“This is such an out-of-the-box type of event for a public school to do fund-raising,” she said. “The first year was tumultuous, and we only made $3,200. The second year we made $80,000. Each year we’ve learned what works and what doesn’t work.”

The venue for the ages 21 and older event is the same this year, though there are several format changes, including a reserved area with table seating.

Cash-strapped public schools like La Jolla High need supplemental income to hold the line on programs as the belt keeps being tightened during these fiscally austere times.

“Two years ago, we had a 7-percent cut across the board at the site for us,” said Principal Dana Shelburne, “and last year they asked for another 2.5 percent. We cut all the flesh off the bone, and then they came up with an additional request this year of 2.5 percent of what is left, which for us is $140,000. We’ve taken a pretty big hit the last three years.”

Shelburne said the funding situation has become so dire that cash raised by the high school’s support group, the Foundation of La Jolla High School is being diverted into maintaining core programs.

“The foundation has been there to help us provide academic and athletic programming,” he said. “In years past, that would have gone for extras, long-term projects to improve the school above and beyond what we were doing, the icing on the cake. But in this fiscal crunch, it’s helping us with the cake, fundamentals, to pay for portions of the day-to-day operations of this campus that are essential.”

It’s regrettable, said Shelburne, that the foundation should have to subsidize rather than supplement school services.

Foundation President Tony Farwell said that more than 100 volunteers are needed to carry off a large-scale event like Off The Wall.

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“It’s far and away the largest event that we sponsor or produce each year,” he said.

The foundation sponsors a number of other fund-raising events annually, including the Taste of La Jolla in October, a winetasting at La Jolla Country Club, a Viking golf classic and a closing-day event at Del Mar Racetrack.

The goal of the foundation is to raise funds to support La Jolla High School. The group has existed since 1985, when funding cuts in athletic programs following passage of tax-cutting Proposition 13 hit the school hard.

“This foundation was formed to try to fill in the gap,” Farwell said, “and then funding shortfalls began to creep into academics.”

The group nets between $300,000 and $400,000 each year to support La Jolla High School.

“We try very hard to make up the difference,” Farwell said. “Without our $400,000 or so, it would impact the core curriculum.”

Farwell said launching the annual street fair fund-raiser was an enormous risk, because it required money and guarantees to hire the musical talent, which is the centerpiece of the event.

“There was no assurance it would be a success,” he said. “At first, it was break-even or slightly above until we figured out the right formula, the kind of entertainment and the kind of costs we could incur. Last year’s event was very successful, and this year’s event is well ahead of last year’s.”

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Tickets for Off the Wall are $45 in advance, $55 on event day, $60 in advance with unlimited food, $100 for reserved seating and $1,250 for a reserved table of 10.

Part of the San Diego Unified School District, La Jolla High School has an enrollment of 1,729 students in grades 9-12. About one-half of the student body come from communities outside La Jolla. About 40 percent of the school’s population is comprised of under-represented groups. A designated high achieving school, more than 90 percent of La Jolla High’s grads go on to higher education at universities and colleges.

Tickets can be purchased at The Willis Allen Co. at 1131 Wall St. or at www.offthewalllajolla.com. For more information, e-mail csatts1@yahoo.