School sponsorships could lessen financial burden for students
By Tory N. Parrish
Published: Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
For $500, a business trying to promote a product can put its name on North Hills School District report cards.
The district devised a partnership plan to generate revenue, offering school calendars and annual reports as vehicles for logos and messages, for $250 to $1,000. Sponsorships can appear on a smartphone app for $35 a month for one school, or $1,000 for all buildings.
A business could even negotiate the purchase of naming rights on school facilities.
North Hills officials say they are joining a growing number of school districts selling corporate sponsorships.
They're doing so to offset state funding cuts, spokeswoman Amanda Hartle said: “That's really a challenge for any district ... in the financial situation that we're in, to be coming up with creative ways to preserve the athletic, academic and arts programs, and that's why we've chosen to launch this program.”
Critics say such deals open the door to commercial interests influencing school district policies and, possibly, instruction. Proponents say they help schools to afford to keep academic and sports programs.
Ambridge Area High School football players play home games on Ambridge Shop 'n Save Field at Moe Rubenstein Stadium. The grocer bought 10-year naming rights in 2011. Neither the district nor store owner Phil Safran would disclose terms of the deal.
Economy resident Kim Evans, 49, a mother of two, including an Ambridge Area football player, supports business sponsorships “since the school can't do it on their own.” Beside Shop 'n Save field is the Wright Automotive Group Field House, which got its moniker when the auto dealer bought rights in a 10-year, $50,000 deal in 2012.
Ambridge Area's junior high school has Creekside Springs Sports and Recreation Complex, named in a 10-year, $30,000 deal signed with bottled water company Creekside Springs LLC in 2012.
School board President Mary Jo Kehoe said Ambridge Area made the deals to avoid chopping its junior high sports programs when the district lost about $3 million in government funding.
“You can't keep going back to the taxpayers asking for more and more money,” Kehoe said.
The North Hills sponsorship plan resulted from a net loss of about $660,000 in state funding in 2013-14, Hartle said.
The district's budget of $69.7 million is 1.6 percent higher than the previous school year's and includes a 4.2-mill property tax drop, to 17.06 mills, to offset Allegheny County reassessments.
North Hills wants corporations to sponsor academic programs in its six academies — such as medicine, engineering and world affairs — at the high school.
The partnerships include naming rights for the academies, dedicated sections on the district's website, and opportunities to showcase company expertise during student events. Costs for academy sponsorships range from $2,500 to $10,000.
Sponsorships could lessen financial burdens for students in the academies who enroll in college-level classes, high school Principal John Kreider said.
But Alex Molnar, director of the Commercialism and Education Research Unit at the National Education Policy Center in Boulder, Colo., cautions that school district sponsorship deals can open the door to unwanted influence by companies.
“Corporations are not philanthropies. The law for publicly held corporations requires that their focus be on shareholder value, and they are entirely focused on benefiting their shareholders,” he said. “That may or may not correspond to the interests of the community in need or the students in particular.”
Multi-year deals may not be financially advantageous for a district, some experts warn.
Butler Area School District sold naming rights for a stadium press box in 2007 to NextTier Bank, which is paying $50,000 over 10 years, and for its spirit stand, which sells school items, to Armstrong Cable, which is paying $30,000 over 10 years, Superintendent Michael Strutt said.
In 2010, Butler Health System bought naming rights for several scoreboards, agreeing to pay $50,000 over five years.
Strutt said Butler Area made the earlier deals because it needed a way to pay for field turf. Sponsors have lifetime rights as long as the structures stand, without making further payments, and some people have complained, he said.
“It was before the school districts really were starting to feel the crush from the lack of state funding, cutbacks in federal funding, increased contributions to retirement,” Strutt said. The district cut staff and athletic budgets recently.
NextTier bought naming rights to Seneca Valley High School's stadium in 2006. The Butler-based bank has a longstanding relationship with the district, spokeswoman Maria Smathers said, and raising its name recognition was important when the bank changed its name from Citizens National Bank in 2005.
“It makes us feel like part of the community. And our name is repeated over and over again, every time something happens at that stadium,” she said.
Tory N. Parrish is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-5662 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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