By Connie Llanos, Staff Writer | Pasadena Star News/LA Newspaper Group | http://bit.ly/f6jB1T
12/12/2010 - Soon, Los Angeles Unified students could be playing football on a Nike Field or punching keyboards in a Dell Computer Lab.
But it's safe to say they won't be dining at a Coca-Cola Cafe.
Faced with crippling budget cuts, L.A. Unified is looking at joining other cash-strapped districts nationwide that have turned to corporate sponsors to raise money.
School board members Tuesday will consider loosening the district's ban on corporate advertising and sponsorship on campuses. The plan could raise $18 million a year - money that would go directly to athletic programs and extracurricular activities that face the chopping block.
"At a time when we're broke, it doesn't make sense to not look at corporate branding and sponsorship as a legitimate way for schools to raise funds," said LAUSD board member Tamar Galatzan.
While some school districts have auctioned off naming rights to principals' offices - and even allowed advertisements for fast-food meals on report cards - LAUSD officials say they will not permit direct advertisement on campuses.
District officials also insist they will screen sponsors carefully so corporate messages don't conflict with district policy. For example, they won't allow soft drink companies to advertise because there is a soda ban on all campuses.
Still, selected companies would be able to place logos on everything from lunchroom cafeterias to football fields.
"We're not going to have cigarette or alcohol companies marketing on campus," Galatzan said. "But there are a lot of great partnership opportunities available out there with local businesses where the relationship would make a lot of sense."
Until now, LAUSD has had strict rules banning any kind of advertising at schools.
Melissa Infusino, LAUSD's director of partnerships, said direct advertising, including the use of phone numbers or references to special deals, will be prohibited for the most part. But Infusino said companies can get name recognition over the long term for naming a school auditorium, computer lab or soccer field.
Infusino stressed that only acceptable partnerships would be embraced, and companies pitching items that would be considered unhealthy for kids - such as fast food, high-fat and high-sugar food vendors - would not be allowed.
"There will be plenty of filters to help guide us towards what is appropriate and not appropriate," she said.
"Any proposal that is in the hopper will have to be reviewed by my office, general counsel, procurement, the division impacted by the sponsorship, the superintendent and then the school board."
Many in the education community, though, believe that any form of product placement in academic environments is wrong and should be avoided.
"This is a way to attach a corporation that exists to promote and benefit a small group of people ... to a public institution that exists to serve the common welfare," said Alex Molnar, director of the Commercialism in Education Research unit at the University of Colorado's National Education Policy Center.
"The rationale is that these are difficult financial times and that you wouldn't do it if you didn't need the money, but the problem is there are always difficult financial times and schools always need the money."
Molnar, who is also a professor of education policy at Arizona State University, said corporate sponsorship schemes can be unfair because school districts that have the most attractive advertising space - often in more affluent areas - are at a financial advantage. Also, the revenue from sponsorships is unstable and could create budget problems, he added.
Ultimately, Molnar questioned if the profit was worth the risk. For example, in LAUSD the $18 million of corporate funding pencils out to about $26 per student.
"For $26 they are selling something that doesn't belong to them ... the minds of these students," Molnar said.
But some in the marketing industry said the controversy over corporate involvement in schools is based on misinformation.
"The (word) needs to get out there that corporations can work with schools in many ways," said Kelly Wood, owner of For Benefit Enterprise, a company that develops public-private partnerships with schools and other community agencies and private companies.
"Corporations can be very involved and do wonderful things for students and programs that are at risk of being cut ...," Wood said. "I don't think there is anything wrong with that."
LAUSD's Infusino said many of the sponsorship opportunities could be done in ways that would not affect a school campus. For instance, a company could opt for a sponsorship package that allows it to place a logo on a district delivery truck or van.
Companies could also sponsor extracurricular activities, such as drill competitions, Academic Decathlon and field trips.
"We are very conscious of the saturation point ...," Infusino said. "We're not looking to be NASCAR."
The $18 million that LAUSD could get from sponsorships is just a fraction of the district's $5.4 billion general fund budget. But with the budget crunch, the district is looking for any help it can find. Those funds equal the costs of running two high schools and a middle school for a year, or the salaries of 206 teachers.
"This is a sign of the times," said Jim Esterbrook, spokesman for the San Diego County Office of Education.
In San Diego, corporate sponsors helped save the outdoor education program, one of the county's oldest and most treasured programs.
"Budgets are so tight that as long as people remain sensitive, this becomes an attractive way to maintain wonderful programs for kids," Esterbrook said.
But while San Diego County's Office of Education has praised corporate sponsorships, which raised $300,000 this year, the San Diego Unified School District voted down a plan to adopt the practice. Many educators question if the short-term financial gain is worth the long-term ramifications.
"These are public schools that are supposed to be sites to promote democracy and citizenship. They are not supposed to be places where captive consumers are given messages on which products they should purchase," said John Rogers, an associate professor of education at UCLA and director of the school's Institute for Democracy, Education and Access.
"It is wonderful for corporations to want to contribute to public schools in Los Angeles ... but I would simply encourage those corporations to advocate for higher levels of corporate taxes, so our public schools can have adequate funding."
A former high school teacher and counselor, LAUSD school board member Steve Zimmer said he understands the concerns about corporate sponsorship but said the district must consider it.
"I am less uncomfortable dealing with corporate sponsorship," Zimmer said, "than I am having people lose their jobs."