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Schools raise extra funds through business sponsors

 

Julia Sellers

South Carolina Bureau
March 23, 2008

 

 

AIKEN --- Pizza night in Deborah Bell's household has two benefits: Her children get a fun night out of the house and their school, Riverside Elementary in Columbia County, makes money from their business.

Many area schools promote family nights as fundraisers. Businesses sponsor the school that night and donate a percentage of the profits.

"If we're going out to dinner tonight anyway, then we'll go to one of those places and I can support the school as well," Mrs. Bell said.

Schools capitalize on such partnerships to bring in extra cash. Whether it goes toward rewarding pupils or buying a new LCD projector, fundraisers have become almost essential as a way to pay for the "extras" a district might not be able to afford otherwise.

But as newsletters come home with mentions of another dinner night or a corporate-sponsored grant, the line between in-kind donations and free advertising for those businesses can become skewed.

According to a study by Alex Molnar and Joseph Reaves, commercial activity in schools rose 473 percent from 1990 to 2001. Dr. Molnar is the director of the Arizona State University Commercialism in Education Research Unit, which tracks advertising in schools.

Though studies show a growth in solicitations from companies, families still flock to programs that help their children's schools.

Chick-fil-A nights have become one of the more popular programs in area elementary schools. Schools usually have a Chick-fil-A night once a month, and a portion of the profits goes to the school.

"Really what it does for us is build up our business," said Tom Johnson, an Aiken Chick-fil-A owner and operator. "We want to support the schools, first, and then secondly we want to have good will in the communities. Maybe there are people who don't eat here on a regular basis. This is where we bring them in."

Schools usually get 15 percent of the location's profits for the night.

"Corporate cooperation is necessary to fund special projects, technology expansion and student incentives," North Augusta Elementary Principal Angela Burkhalter said. "It supports our educational program and does not detract. Many times it is a means of getting parents involved in support. We try to moderate the frequency and manage the commercial involvement in a prudent manner."

The Aiken County school system does not have an explicit policy on advertising in schools but reserves the right to approve fundraisers and other activities. The cash-strapped district even approved naming rights for school buildings as a possible way to bring in money from corporations or wealthy families for the building fund. But the district can decline any donation if the board doesn't feel the association would be in the district's best interest.

Columbia County, however, does have an explicit "no advertising" policy within schools, but there are partnerships with more than 250 businesses.

"We just use common sense and we have controls in place where schools have to submit the fundraiser and where the money might go," said Karen Ribble, the county's community relations coordinator. "We actually encourage businesses to support five or more schools to become a partner at large."

Susan Linn, of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, said districts can accept company donations without tying so much of the partnership to advertising.

"I think that it's wonderful that local businesses want to help out local schools, but they shouldn't do it quid pro quo. If the district wants, they could put a plaque up honoring those that sponsor schools," she said.

"These corporate partnerships are a slippery slope -- some may be less problematic than others -- but schools need to ask some hard questions, like how much money are they really getting?" Ms. Linn said.

About 73.4 percent of schools that have relationships with food companies didn't receive any income from the deals, according to the Commercialism in Education Research Unit. About 12 percent of schools received less than $2,500 from the sponsorship.

At Riverside Elementary, Mrs. Bell, who leads the Parent-Teacher Organization, said classrooms would have gone without supplies if it weren't for the sponsorships.

"We bought LCD projectors for every classroom and purchased more AR (accelerated reader) tests," she said. "The county does a tremendous job for us, but if the PTOs weren't doing these things then the schools wouldn't have the benefits or taxes might be raised."

"As a parent, I don't feel inundated by these fundraisers because I choose if I want to participate," Mrs. Bell said. "We do other things like story nights, and there's no advertising or anything there. I really think my children are oblivious to the one or two things put into their folders."


 

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