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Your Company's Name Here . . .

County Office of Education's courtship of corporate sponsors could raise big cash – and concerns about the lessons learned

Chris Moran
June 24, 2009

For $3 million, the county Office of Education's sixth-grade camp could take a corporate name such as Cuyamaca Outdoor School presented by Mission Federal Credit Union. Or maybe Qualcomm's Camp Cuyamaca.

For $75,000, a company can present the high school girls volleyball championship on ITV, the office's cable channel. For another $75,000, a company president can appear on ITV handing over the trophies to the winning students in a video production contest. And space on the Splash Science Mobile Lab can be had for $100,000.

Naming-rights deals once associated with sports and entertainment venues are migrating to public education, leading critics to warn that schools may be venturing down the wrong path.

“One of the purposes of education and of school is to promote reasoning, and advertising by its nature subverts reason, and for that reason alone has no place in the schools,” said Susan Linn, director of the nonprofit Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood at the Judge Baker Children's Center in Boston.

The county Office of Education's plan, released last week, would be the biggest corporate sponsorship of its kind in the region.

Officials frame it as a way for a corporate savior to pay for children who would otherwise miss out on a stay in the woods. They report a decline of nearly 30 percent in the number of low-income campers, and because the camps are supposed to be funded by camper fees, the county can't afford many free spots.

“In tough economic times, it's very difficult for parents to raise $270 for a week of their children going to school when you're coming from a socio-economic situation where that's a very difficult choice,” said county schools Superintendent Randy Ward. “What we're trying to do is make sure that there's some equity in the experience of outdoor education.”

The five-year, naming-rights deal could fund scholarships for an estimated 2,500 students a year, Ward said.

The plan is the latest example of public schools giving private companies a spot on campus. San Marcos Unified School District buses, for example, carry a radio service that plays ads between safety messages and hit songs without offensive language. A calculus teacher at Rancho Bernardo High School has recently sold ad space on the front page of his tests to cover printing costs.

The Coronado School of the Arts, an academy within Coronado High School, has tried for about a year to sell naming rights to its theater.

Scattered schools across the nation also have experimented with naming rights. A school district in Wisconsin recently sold the naming rights to its varsity baseball field to a credit union. A school district in Missouri recently sold naming rights to classrooms and wings in its new high school science building.

That Camp Cuyamaca administrators feel compelled to seek private money demonstrates that society doesn't value public education enough, Linn said.

She said a corporate presence in an educational setting carries extra weight because it benefits from the “halo effect” of the tacit endorsement of teachers.

“It's ironic that the kids are going to be really face-to-face with marketing that is going to be inculcating consumerism, which is antithetical to environmental values” that camps try to promote, Linn said.

Officials with the Office of Education insist that the naming rights are not advertising. No products are mentioned. The alcohol, tobacco and gun industries are not invited to make offers. But Indian tribes are – with the understanding that gambling won't be mentioned on their signs and plaques.

The naming rights for the camp is the marquee offering in a list of your-name-here opportunities at the Descanso site. Ward said his office will sell plaques on cabins, the mess hall, the lodge and posts along hiking trails.

Officials say they may have little choice.

“The programs that are offered at Outdoor School are definitely worth preserving, and given the state of the budget, we need partners to support them,” said Jim Esterbrooks, spokesman for the county Office of Education.

This month the county office closed Camp Fox in Santa Ysabel, a smaller sixth-grade camp, because it runs $600,000 a year in the red. The office is planning a $7 million expansion of Camp Cuyamaca to make up for the lost beds at Camp Fox.

Terry Burton, president of Vancouver-based Dig In Research and author of a book on naming rights, said it doesn't appear that the $3 million asking price is out of line.

He's not troubled that such naming rights give traction to creeping commercialism.

“America's sense of angst about corporate partnerships and corporate sponsorships (is) way overblown. Corporations want to come in and do the right thing,” Burton said. Good philanthropy is good business, he said.






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