A School Prays for Help
Towns Tap Businesses, Churches to Shore Up Budgets
Jennifer Levitz and Stephanie Simon
Wall Street Journal
June 14, 2010
When his budget for pencils, paper, and other essential supplies was cut by a third this school year, the principal of Combee Elementary School worried children would suffer.
Then, a local church stepped in and "adopted" the school. The First Baptist Church at the Mall stocked a resource room with $5,000 worth of supplies. It now caters spaghetti dinners at evening school events, buys sneakers for poor students, and sends in math and English tutors.
The principal is delighted. So are church pastors. "We have inroads into public schools that we had not had before," says Pastor Dave McClamma. "By befriending the students, we have the opportunity to visit homes to talk to parents about Jesus Christ."
Short on money for everything from math workbooks to microscope slides, public schools across the nation are seeking corporate and charitable sponsors, promising them marketing opportunities and access to students in exchange for desperately needed donations.
The dash for private funding has raised concerns. The Oklahoma Senate last month voted down a bill that would have allowed advertising on school buses, a move supporters said would prevent teacher layoffs. "Do we want our school buses to look like Dale Jr. (NASCAR racer Dale Earnhardt Jr.) is driving them?" says state Sen. Steve Russell, an Oklahoma City Republican who opposed the bill. "What's next? How about Starbucks on the side of our M1 tanks?"
In Florida, meanwhile, alliances between churches and schools are igniting debate about church-state boundaries. "I have great concerns about churches who see public schools as, well, what shall I say, church membership," says Harry Parrott, a retired Baptist minister who runs a local chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Combee Elementary School is one of many schools seeking private help amid the orange groves of central Florida's Polk County, which has an unemployment rate of 12.1% and the fifth-highest rate of suburban poverty in the nation, according to the Brookings Institution, a Washington D.C. think tank.
Nearby Frostproof Elementary asks local businesses to sponsor classrooms, in return for promotion on the school marquee. Among those that stepped in is Rogers & Walker Gun Shop, which earned billing for donations totaling $300 to two classes.
At Sikes Elementary, principal Ann Tankson hands out fliers urging families to flock to "McTeacher's Night" at the local McDonald's, where volunteer teachers flip burgers as "celebrity employees." The franchise gives a portion of proceeds to the school.
"You do what you have to do," she says.
Public agencies across the spectrum, not just schools, are doing what they have to do. Already hit by a fall in sales and income taxes over the past two years, local governments now are wrestling with a drop in property-tax collections as home values are adjusted to reflect the downturn.
The police department in tiny Bayport, Minn., sought donations from a pet-food company to buy and feed its first trained police dog, a black-lab mix named Keylo. The public library system in El Paso, Texas, recently formed a nonprofit foundation to raise corporate funds to buy children's books and Spanish-language literature. Costa Mesa, Calif., is hunting for businesses to sponsor dog-poop bag dispensers.
Short of funds to provide homeless services, the Florida Department of Children and Families recently gave nearly $260,000 to the First Baptist Church Leesburg, an hour from Orlando, to buy and renovate the old Big Bass Motel in Leesburg. The church will open it this month as a shelter for homeless families. Residents will be required to attend church, though it doesn't have to be First Baptist, says Chester Wood, director of the inn.
Such alliances "are forcing a kind of essential re-examining of the public-private compact," says Mark Muro, a public policy analyst at the Brookings Institution. "We're going to be seeing more and more of this in the next year or two—and we're going to be seeing some experiments."
Public schools are making some of the boldest moves. Traditionally, private donations—including foundation grants and money raised at bake sales—have amounted to just 1% of K-12 funding nationally, according to the Education Commission of the States, a nonprofit think tank. The money generally has been spent on extras like new computers or playground upgrades.
Now, it's for essentials. "They're asking for simple things: books for the classroom, art supplies, paper," says Sean McGraw, executive director of a nonprofit foundation that supports public schools in wealthy Douglas County, Colo.
Bake sales no longer cut it. Manatee County, Fla., just received a $20,000 check from a local cucumber grower, Falkner Farms, which wants to sponsor and name an elementary-school engineering program. District officials are reviewing the deal as they continue to solicit sponsors for other courses.
The San Diego Unified School District is seriously considering opening its middle- and high-school cafeterias and gyms to corporate advertising, a move that could bring in $30,000 to $50,000 a year per school, says Bernie Rhinerson, chief district relations officer.
"We wouldn't put tobacco or anything objectionable to young minds," Mr. Rhinerson says.
But he can see Nike advertising in the gym. "That $30,000 could buy a part-time music teacher, a resource teacher, or books for the library," Mr. Rhinerson says.
North of San Diego, administrators in the Vista Unified School District are already reaching out to private-sector sponsors. Dentist John Coleman runs periodic promotions offering free teeth-whitening for patients who write a $150 check to a magnet school across the street from his office. The school sends home fliers advertising the deal; teachers talk it up among friends. The dentist says he's raised $5,000 for school science programs while bringing in more than enough new patients to make it worth his while.
This summer, the Houston Independent School District plans to launch a commercial online radio station in partnership with a private firm, RFC Media. The station, accessible from the district website, will play rock and rhythm-and-blues, air school news and sports highlights, and include five minutes of commercials each hour from a local supermarket chain, a furniture store and other sponsors. RFC Media, which has long experience in Houston radio, expects the district's share of the profit to top $300,000 the first year.
Some parents say they're grateful when the private sector steps up. "If a minor-league baseball park can have commercial sponsors, why shouldn't a high school, if it alleviates the tax burden and helps balance the budget?" says Dick Lee, a mortgage broker whose three children attend public schools in Newton, Mass. That district is considering selling naming rights to the theater, gym, swimming pool and athletic fields at its newest high school.
Other parents feel the alliances go too far. In Nashville, parent Mortimer Davenport is irked at a deal approved this spring by Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. In return for $150,000 in cash and in-kind donations, the Tennessee Credit Union will open a bank branch in Antioch High School's cafeteria that will be run by students and staff and serve the school. The high school's business program has also been renamed, "The Tennessee Credit Union Academy of Business and Finance."
Mr. Davenport isn't crazy about having teens handle other peoples' money. And the deal with the credit union disturbs him.
"If a business is willing to pump money into a public-school system, they should just give it to the school to buy things it needs," says Mr. Davenport, whose daughter is a senior at Antioch High.
The school district says the bank branch will allow young people to get hands-on business experience.
Some educators and parents worry that schools in affluent areas have an advantage in finding private donors, exacerbating inequities in the classroom. They also fret that if schools are too successful at raising donations, lawmakers will cut their public funding even more deeply. "Legislators will begin to factor in outside donations when setting school budgets," says Arnold Fege of the Public Education Network, which represents school-advocacy groups.
In Polk County, situated between Tampa and Orlando, educators say they must run after every available dollar. Declining property-tax revenue has forced the school district to strip $76 million, or nearly 10%, from its budget over the past two years, even though the student population has grown, says Superintendent Gail McKinzie.
At Combee Elementary, funding for basic school supplies is down 33%, says principal Steve Comparato. In recent months, he's received donations from a local fertilizer company and a grocery chain. But Combee's most active sponsor is First Baptist Church at the Mall, a 9,000-member congregation that uses golf carts to shuttle worshippers from its palm-tree-filled parking lot to its main chapel, which used to be a Sam's Club.
Last fall, a school staffer who worships at the church told pastors about the school's plight. In a visit to Combee shortly thereafter, Mr. McClamma, the church's senior associate pastor of evangelism and missions, offered to start by opening a "resource room" stocked with supplies.
"I said, 'Amen,'" recalls Mr. Comparato. "This was like a prayer answered."
While Combee gained resources, the church gained access to families. At Christmas, the school connected the church with parents who said they wouldn't mind being visited at home by First Baptist. The church brought gifts, food and the gospel. Of about 30 families visited over two weekends in December, 13 "came to the Lord," says Mr. McClamma, a 58-year-old motorcycle buff who drives a black sports-utility vehicle with the bumper sticker "Christ First."
Mr. McClamma says adopting Combee goes far beyond providing resources like school supplies. "The purpose is to show them the church cares, and that there is hope, and hope is found in Jesus Christ."
"If they want to come in and help, who am I to say no?" says Mr. Comparato, the principal.
He says he would welcome congregations of any faith as sponsors, but adds of his students, "My personal conviction is that I hope through this they'll know Jesus and they'll get saved."
Asked if the principal's comments indicated he was promoting one particular religion, Ms. McKinzie, the Polk County superintendent, says, "He personally can hope anything he wants, as long as he offers programs at the school for parents who don't believe in the Baptist faith or anything at all."
Loretta Deal, a Combee parent, says she's not a churchgoer, but she appreciates the help from First Baptist, particularly after the church brought her gift certificates at Christmas. Ms. Deal, who is disabled from a stroke, says the church encouraged her to come to their church but she felt comfortable refusing. "Yes, they did, but I have never been a churchgoing person," she says.
On a recent muggy afternoon at the school, the lanky, 57-year-old principal strode down outdoor walkways painted with cougar paws (for the Combee mascot) with two pastors from First Baptist.
"Can I have a word of prayer with you?" asked Pastor McClamma. The principal, his assistant and the two pastors from First Baptist stood in a circle outdoors, outside the main office. Pastor McClamma asked for "Combee Elementary, Lord, just to excel."
As he walked through classrooms, Pastor McClamma jotted down notes of what the school was short on.
"How are y'all on the colored pencils? Need some of these?" he asked the principal, holding up pencils. "If you're getting low on supplies, let me know."