No More Bake Sales: Schools Tap New Sources of Funding

Firms buy bus ads, sponsor materials to lament of critics

WITH tax dollars scarce, school fund-raising efforts are moving beyond the traditional bake sale and PTA raffle. Cash-starved districts across the nation are learning new lessons about creativity and entrepreneurship - and, in the process, stirring some occasional controversy.

* In Colorado Springs, Colo., a school district is selling advertising on campus walls, buses, and scoreboards.

* An increasing number of schools are accepting corporate-sponsored curricula. The material is free, but it often presents lopsided views on topics the company has a vested interest in.

* ``Affinity'' credit cards are becoming a popular revenue source for districts. Parents and school employees apply for the cards and a percentage of charges goes to the schools.

Many public-school officials would rather not pursue some of these options. But shrinking tax dollars are forcing them to look beyond traditional funding approaches.

Voters in Colorado Springs have not approved a tax increase for the schools in 22 years. ``The voters in this community have challenged us to be more creative in how we finance our schools and to be more businesslike,'' says Kenneth Burnley, superintendent of Colorado Springs School District 11.

In response, school leaders established a groundbreaking corporate-sponsorship program. ``Although there is already some advertising in [many] schools, such as yearbook ads and scoreboards with business logos, this is the first time this kind or scope of business-education partnership has been fielded anywhere in the country, as far as we know,'' Mr. Burnley says.

Response from local and national companies has been strong since the district began its program last school year. ``The sponsoring companies are seen as supporting public education,'' says Tracy Cooper, who oversees the district's program. ``It's good for their corporate image.''

Some companies use the advertising space to provide motivational messages to students. Pepsi, for example, put up a sign in all five high schools saying: ``Ensure tomorrow with good decisions today.''

So far, the district's campaign has raised nearly $60,000 for its 53 schools. But with a $133 million annual budget for the 32,000-student district, ``the main responsibility for educating our youth remains where it should be - with the citizens of this community and the state,'' Burnley says. The district has set strict guidelines for the type of advertising allowed. None of the messages can promote violence, politics, religion, or the use of drugs, alcohol, tobacco, or guns.

District officials anticipated some controversy about the new program. ``Yet we have heard practically zero complaints about any aspect of this campaign,'' Ms. Cooper says.

SEVERAL companies are already capitalizing on the new interest in such fund-raising. School Properties Inc. in San Francisco is lining up corporate sponsors, overseeing licenses for T-shirts and other products with school logos, and launching ``affinity'' credit cards to raise money for schools.

School Properties already has contracts with six states (Utah, Illinois, Florida, Ohio, Arkansas, and Nebraska) and is negotiating with 13 others. The firm works on a statewide basis, through school-board associations, for example, rather than contracting with individual districts. ``Our intent is to eventually pick up all 50 states,'' says Wes Apker, executive vice-president of the company.

``Each state has identified benefits that they feel comfortable giving a corporate sponsor,'' Mr. Apker says.

``Corporations have been good citizens for a long time in terms of supporting public schools,'' Apker says. ``But this is the first time that they've been able to do something on a statewide basis. The extent of the exposure is exciting for many companies.''

These programs are not going to solve public education's funding problems, even Apker admits. ``But the amount of money we're talking about is not trivial,'' he adds. In Florida, the company's contract stipulates that education officials should expect to be making $1 per public-school student by the end of three years.

The prospect of new revenue sources excites many budget-weary education officials. Yet critics argue that selling the public schools is a dangerous game.

``We very clearly understand the position schools are in with their backs against the wall, but once they get on this track, there is nowhere to go but selling out every minute of the school day,'' says Robin Templeton, campaign coordinator for Unplug, an organization opposed to the commercialization of public schools.

Critics argue that incoming advertising revenue may widen the funding gap between rich and poor school districts. Wealthy parents can generate more money for their schools through credit-card purchases, for example.

One of the greatest concerns is the potential to exploit students or use them to sell products. Others philosophically oppose the concept of advertising in schools.

``It's unethical to sell the students' time,'' says Veronica Sanchez, youth outreach coordinator for Unplug in Oakland, Calif. ``Education is not the place for selling and teaching commercialism and consumption. Is school about teaching us to be better consumers, or better citizens?''

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