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School fundraising: A non-stop campaign
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This ad appears in the national PTA's "Fundraising Essentials" magazine, even as the organization's president says children should "never, ever, ever be involved in fundraising." (Image courtesy of the PTA)
Fundraising sales have long been a part of going to school. Most adults remember selling candy and other items to help finance school extras like field trips or language camps. But as financial pressures strain education budgets, many schools are turning to fundraisers to pay for basic programs --- even classroom supplies. Some teachers, school administrators and parents think there's too much selling in public education.

Hermantown, Minn. — Only in July are the people of Hermantown, Minnesota, spared official school fundraising. Every other month of the year the suburban Duluth community's elementary, middle and high school students are busy hawking everything from coupon books, to clothing, magazines, cookie dough, steaks and Christmas wreaths.

Ninth-grader Chad Huttle, fresh from a game of floor hockey in the Hermantown High School gym, says it's really not difficult to sell all of the stuff.

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Image Hermantown students

"(You) just go around to people that you know and ask them if they want to buy it. It's pretty easy," Huttle says.

Still, he says there are many things he'd rather spend his time on than fundraising.

"I think it's good because they need the money for all of the stuff, and it helps pay for everything. It's not the funnest thing though," Huttle says.

Like many school districts, Hermantown needs the extra money. Sales profits increasingly pay for basics, including library books, classroom bulletin boards and sheet music for the band and choir.

School administrators say they don't even know exactly how much money their school-sanctioned fundraisers bring in every year, only that the amount is constantly increasing.

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Image Hermantown AD Gary Bowen

Athletic Director Gary Bowen coordinates the various fund drives.

"Because the money gets tighter and tighter, and when the Legislature says there's no more money for schools -- if you want programs you've got to have some money," says Bowen. "Instead of going to the state Legislature, you go to fifth and sixth graders to go out and knock on doors to sell cookies."

Bowen calls fundraising a necessary evil. As much as Hermantown schools needed the money, the various campaigns were getting out of control. So last year, Bowen and others began centrally approving and scheduling their school fundraisers.

"A lot of the community members was getting hit by three or four groups in a day or two," Bowen says. "We wanted to space it out, to make it easier for us and easier for the community of Hermantown."

Bowen says he has few set standards for approving any particular campaign -- no minimum profit margin, for example. Instead, Bowen says he tries to ensure fundraising is done only for appropriate causes.

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Image Ill-gotten money

The Association of Fund-Raising Distributors and Suppliers estimates that in 2000, the last year the group attempted to quantify school fundraising nationwide, sales grossed well over $3 billion.

Association Executive Director Russ Lemieux says on average, schools end up with a little less than 50 percent of total sales. So in 2000, schools netted more than $1.5 billion from fundraisers.

Lemieux estimates there are about 1,000 fundraising companies around the country chasing the multi-billion dollar school sales market.

"The reason is simply that the funding for schools and other not-for-profit groups hasn't kept pace with the expense. And there's been a widening gap in the funding, so this industry has stepped in to help fill those gaps," says Lemieux.

Public schools are basically on their own when it comes to regulating fundraising. The Minnesota Department of Education does require schools to account for fundraiser revenue and the way it's spent. But there are no regulations governing how much classroom time can be devoted to sales. There are no restrictions about using kids to raise money.

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Image Mary Warner

Information on the Minnesota Department of Education Web site discourages students from selling door-to-door, and urges that fundraising not interfere with educational activities.

Unlike Hermantown, St. Louis Park Junior High has just one major fundraiser every year. Last fall, the school's magazine sale brought in about $20,000. Science teacher Britt Karas-Gulstrand says every penny is needed. Still, she says the money is ill-gotten.

"Making children -- not making, but encouraging -- children to sell stuff just seems so inappropriate and creepy," Karas-Gulstrand says.

Karas-Gulstrand says escalating marketing hype and sales incentives, now integral to school fundraising, have become a growing classroom distraction.

The more the kids sell, the more prizes they're awarded. And it goes well beyond trinkets like hats, necklaces, key chains and watches. With strong sales, students can earn the way out of class for prizes like lunchtime limousine cruises.

"I myself have asked for some of that money for supplemental educational materials. However, it's the invasiveness of it all that is draining," says Karas-Gulstrand. "We're encouraged to be encouraging, and we're encouraged to support this for obvious reasons. It's in our best interests, yet it's so anti-classroom environment."

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Image North Star Community School teacher Farzaneh Kia

And parents too, are questioning the legitimacy of using kids, teachers and class time to raise money.

Mary Warner has three children in the Little Falls School District in central Minnesota. For years she's been frustrated with school fundraisers. She's written numerous letters to school administrators and to local newspapers -- making her case that fundraisers often take advantage of kids and waste class time.

"They're a free sales force -- and so are their parents. They're not being allowed to learn in the classroom which is what they're supposed to be doing," says Warner. "Then they're emotionally blackmailed with this whole business about prizes. And guess what? 'If you don't take part in this fundraiser, you don't get to take part in the prizes at the end either.'"

Parent Teacher Associations often spearhead school fund drives, even though the National PTA is on record in opposition to much of the fundraising that's going on. Linda Hodge is the national president of the PTA.

"Kids should never, ever, ever be involved in fundraising," says Linda Hodge, the national president of the PTA. "Our kids' job is to go to school, to get educated, to learn. And our teachers' job is to teach our kids, not to be running fundraisers."

Hodge says while fundraisers are nothing new, more than ever, schools are turning to student sales forces to pay for things traditionally covered in public school budgets.

"The fundraisers that are taking place now -- I mean we're buying toilet paper, Kleenex, paper for the office -- basic, basic supplies," says Hodge.

For the first time ever, the PTA published a guide this year, "Fundraising Essentials," to help schools and parents' groups make good decisions about fundraising programs.

The Association of Fundraising Distributors and Suppliers estimates the average fundraiser nets about $6,000. But the numbers vary widely, and they're often tied to the wealth of a school's population. Schools in well-off communities have a much better chance at bringing in fundraiser dollars than do schools in poor neighborhoods like the North Star Community school in north Minneapolis.

North Star Community School teacher Farzaneh Kia says about 10 years ago, her elementary school students stopped trying to raise money selling candy and gift wrap. Fundraisers at North Star didn't bring in any cash. Instead, they ended up costing money.

"Most of the checks had 'not sufficient funds,' so we got all those returned checks -- and people were not able to buy things," Kia says.

North Star Community School now raises grant money from a host of corporate foundations and social service agencies.

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