School House Wonk

"Genius without education is like silver in the mine." Benjamin Franklin

What’s in a name?

Across the U.S., state lawmakers continue to face unprecedented budget woes. Today in Washington state, Governor Christine Gregoire (D) convened a special session for the legislature to address a $2 billion shortfall. Gregoire has proposed tax hikes and cuts to state programs, including significant cuts to education.

Faced with decreased revenue streams in a flat economy that shows little sign of recovering anytime soon, some cash-strapped public schools and districts are looking to private donors to fund certain projects. Mary Gale Hare and Liz Bowie report in The Baltimore Sun that corporate or private sponsorship of facilities is on the rise at public high schools, following a similar trend at colleges and universities, where corporate sponsorship of everything from football fields to department chairs is becoming the norm. Chris Daley, senior account executive at Maroon PR, a Baltimore-based marketing company, describes it this way:

Given the state of the economy, and the big cuts many school systems are taking, many institutions are looking for outside donations. We’re used to this policy with professional [sports] teams and even college teams. Across the country, big-brand corporate sponsorship is definitely on the rise with high schools as well.

At North Hagerstown High School (also in Maryland), a $500,000 donation gave donor Mike Callas naming rights to the football stadium. At that same stadium, naming rights to everything from the athletic field ($250,000), scoreboard ($100,000) and even the restrooms ($10,000) were sold to donors eager to have their names memorialized a la Friday Night Lights. When the county wanted to build a new magnet high school for the arts, Vincent Groh donated the building, named after his late wife, Barbara Ingram, an art teacher in the county school system.  At the school, rooms have been named after donors.

Although the prospect of five and six-figure donations might seem too tempting to pass up in the current fiscal crisis, some school boards are treading lightly. According to Hare and Bowie, many districts lack clear policy guidelines to help them evaluate prospective donations. Others are worried about setting ill-advised precedent, or selling naming rights for too low a price. For example, one school board rejected a donation of $20,000 by two NFL players for a new scoreboard at Aberdeen High School in exchange for naming the school football field after them, because the donation was too low.

But at other school districts, such as Baltimore County, school board policy allows the naming of building and athletic fields for donors; the community and school board work together to decide on the requisite financial donation.  The head of school construction for the state of Maryland, David Lever, has “encouraged school systems to look into the benefits of selling naming rights.”  

For school districts interested in raising revenue this way, Daley (the Maroon PR accountant) advises administrators to “spell out what you are looking for,” and to keep each potential sponsorship “open for negotiations.”  Putting term limits on items that need regular renovation or repair, such as scoreboards, is another way to keep the revenue stream constant.

Beth T. Sigall

November 28, 2011

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