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Cash-Strapped California Schools Seek Commercial Sponsors to Raise Funds

Facing staggering budget cuts, districts are increasingly turning to outside sources of revenue, including selling ad space and offering naming rights. Beverly Hills may even market apparel.

Seema Mehta
LA Times
September 7, 2009

As strapped schools open across California, educators are turning to outside sources like never before in an attempt to ease the effects of multibillion-dollar cuts, giving rise to the new three Rs: retailing, raising money and recouping budgets.

Los Angeles Unified School District officials are courting the city's professional sports teams to blunt cuts to athletics programs. Beverly Hills trustees are considering logo T-shirts, hats and other apparel, counting on teenagers to snap up the merchandise because of the city's celebrity and the popularity of television's "Beverly Hills, 90210." San Diego County educators are selling the naming rights to two sixth-grade science camps. South Pasadena officials are wooing Hollywood producers to film TV shows at district headquarters.

"I don't think we have much of a choice," said interim Supt. Wayne Joseph of the Chino Valley Unified School District, which is considering selling ads for its football stadiums and corporate sponsorships of school assemblies. "There are probably more dark days ahead. We're going to have to look at other streams of revenue."

As the economy has unraveled and California faces continual budget shortfalls, state spending on education has been dramatically reduced in recent years -- including cuts of $6.1 billion in the current fiscal year and $11.6 billion last February -- resulting in widespread teacher layoffs, larger class sizes and curtailed athletic, gifted and music programs.

Many districts are increasingly relying on such tried-and-true revenue generators as parcel taxes and nonprofit fundraising foundations to plump their coffers, said Ron Bennett, president of School Services of California, a Sacramento lobbying firm that represents school districts. Parents, too, are again being tapped for classroom supplies and cash donations.

But this year some districts are going even further, looking at unusual -- and more creative -- ways to bring in more cash.

All this has raised concerns about the growing inequities between wealthy and poor schools.

"We'll take all the help we can get," said Chris Eftychiou, spokesman for the Long Beach Unified School District, which received nearly $1.7 million in donations at various campuses in the school year that ended in June. "The downside of this is the larger donations tend to be in the more affluent neighborhoods, which brings up questions of equity. That's the problem of the state not funding schools properly in the first place. At the same time, we're not going to turn away help."

L.A. Unified Supt. Ramon C. Cortines reached out last month to Los Angeles' professional sports teams, hoping to form partnerships that could include the use of pro facilities, equipment donations and athletes volunteering as mentors.

"A partnership of this magnitude would be a win-win for all involved -- most particularly, the youth of the city of Los Angeles," Cortines said in a letter to the teams.

(The Clippers, perhaps sympathetic to underdogs, were the first to respond, saying they would help.)

Other districts are actively seeking corporate support.

In what it describes as "innovative sponsorship opportunities" that will provide "unprecedented, multiyear branding and marketing opportunities," the San Diego County Office of Education announced earlier this year that it is selling naming rights to two sixth-grade science camps. Sponsors could also have their names placed on dorms and dining halls.

Attendance by underprivileged children has declined at the camps, which are used by districts throughout the county for weeklong science education programs during the school year.

County officials hope to raise $3 million over five years, which could partly offset camp tuition costs for those students.

"We don't have a buyer yet, but we've got a lot of balls in the air," said Jim Esterbrooks, a spokesman. "It will be tasteful and sensitive. We're not going to try to sell anything on the backs of kids. . . . We're living in a different age, and it's a tough time right now."

In Beverly Hills, officials are working with a consultant to create an apparel line. The merchandise -- California casual clothing and accessories with a crest bearing the name Beverly Hills High School, the motto "Today Well Lived" and palm trees -- would be aimed at tweens and young adults and sold at stores such as Sears and JCPenney, as well as overseas.

The effort isn't costing the district any money, but it would share in the profits if the venture is successful.

"The brand of Beverly Hills is so strong worldwide that we actually have an opportunity to do what some of the major universities and colleges around the country have been able to do," said school board Trustee Steven Fenton.

In South Orange County, officials had been in talks with a Texas firm to place an open-air IMAX-type theater on Mission Viejo High’s athletic fields. The theater would have raised money by showing family movies at night and on weekends, and through advertisements. But the deal fell through this summer when the company refused to guarantee a specific amount of monthly revenue to the district.

So school board members and district officials, who anticipate having to cut $20 million out of next year's budget, will discuss other revenue-generating ideas, said Saddleback Valley Unified Supt. Steven L. Fish.

A key question will be, "How far are we willing to extend ourselves into public ad campaigns or whatever else in order to raise money," he said. "The amount of money [that must be cut] is so staggering, I just don't even know where to start."

Critics question the appropriateness of such efforts, saying that ads on campus amount to de facto endorsements to a captive audience.

"I am enormously sympathetic to the plight of schools today," said Susan Linn, director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood in Boston. But "when schools become businesses, the well-being and education of children is no longer the focus."

Educators counter that they can no longer rely on the government for sufficient funding and must take responsibility for finding new ways to fund schools.

"School districts are desperate," said state Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell, "and school districts are trying to keep the lights on."


 

 

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