'Please Sir, Could You Buy More?'

Sell 300 candy bars? Subscribe to 'Salamander Secrets'? Parents brace themselves for school fund-raisers

Back to school?

Try back to business. As classes get into gear, parents everywhere are bracing for the onslaught of children begging from friends and neighbors under school colors. Where there's a need, preschoolers through collegiates alike are encouraged to finagle, demand, and wheedle on behalf of their institutions.

Won't you buy a chocolate bar to help fix the 40 year-old bathrooms? Can't you sign up for another 10 rolls of wrapping paper, so we can buy uniforms that actually fit? If we spend another hour selling cookies in front of the supermarket, we can paint the flagpole, so can we stay?

Indeed, students today are getting a new spin on the old three "Rs": "Read these magazines! Write your check to the school! Wrap up that sale!"

But while individual goals are often modest (say, new jump ropes for gym), the bigger picture is, well, huge.

"This is a $4-billion to $5-billion business," says Norm Fawcett, president of QSP Inc., a subsidiary of the Reader's Digest Association Inc. His company sells everything from magazines to teddy bears, and will help some 30,000 US schools raise money this year. It is the largest in the country.

Schools receive between 40 and 50 percent of the money they raise, depending on the vendor. QSP, for example, usually gives schools half of the money they raise through magazine sales, while other magazine vendors give 10 percent less. On the other hand, ongoing fund-raisers such as scrip sales can generate modest but potentially lucrative 5 to 20 percent returns for schools, if sustained throughout the year.

Mr. Fawcett is quick to insist that his company is serving the community. "The tax base of our schools is being cut back, so there is a need," he notes. "Many schools simply wouldn't have things like computers if they didn't raise money."

But parents take little comfort in that fact. "I hate it," sighs Ann Hummel, a Northridge, Calif., mother of two. But, like most parents, she knows the schools need the money. So, she tries to be practical. "What made the most money last year? That's what I'll put my energy into."

Mrs. Hummel has war stories from the endless magazines sales. "One year, we needed to bump the sales up to another level, so I ordered more than usual." Now, says the inundated mom, "I have piles of unread magazines." Every time a new one drops through the door, she says, "it's like a slap in the face."

Nationwide, magazine sales are still the No. 1 money maker for schools. And for good reason, says QSP's Fawcett. "Magazines are easy. There's no product for the schools to stock, and the prices are competitive with regular retail, unlike things like candy or gift wrap."

But there is almost nothing that dedicated fund-raisers won't try to sell at least once: candy, cookies, gift wrap, magazines, spell- and walk-a-thons, scrip, shopping cards.

"We tried those discount cards last year," says Mark Holden, the parent of fifth-grade twin boys, "but they were a bust." But Holden says that put only a tiny dent in an overall successful fund-raising record.

For the past five years, Mr. Holden has spearheaded a drive to air-condition the Dixie Canyon Avenue School in Sherman Oaks, Calif. The school has held magazine sales, pizza sales, and move-a-thons. Now, it has roughly $40,500 in a trust account - although it will take more than double that to do the job.

Holden says, "I started on this when my boys were in first grade. Now, they're about to leave the school." He adds that over the years, there have been days he's done nothing but work on the project. Despite the burden, he adds, "I won't give it up. It will either be done, or I'll be dead."

Holden's story brings up a sore point with many parents. "It's more of an effort for the parents than the kids," laments Diane Newell, who has shepherded three older children through the public schools. Since most schools give prizes to the kids who raise the most money, Mrs. Newell says, "it's devastating for the kids whose parents don't help out."

With her oldest child, Newell says, "I got to the point where I would beg them just to let me pay. I didn't want more candy."

Now, she says she's more pragmatic with her seven-year-old, Jonathan. "I'll estimate what I would have done if I'd actually gone out and sold the candy and I'll just pay it. It's like an honor system for me."

While she's cut back her actual participation, she thinks the fund-raising may teach a valuable lesson to the kids.

"It's the real world," she says. "We're all selling ourselves all the time anyway, it's all about getting people to believe in what you're doing."

In fact, the very process of fund-raising has brought some community residents back to the public schools. "We're seeing more parents coming back from private schools as they see the difference they can make in the public schools," observes Beth Gold, president of the booster group for Sherman Oaks Elementary School.

Last year, the school raised $17,000 from gift-wrap sales and $12,000 from magazine sales. "We've air-conditioned the school, created a computer lab. Last year we gave teachers $150 each and supplied Scholastic News for the classrooms. Every little bit helped," Ms. Gold says.

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