Schools exchange naming rights for donations

A $500,000 contribution immortalized Mike Callas' name on the North Hagerstown High School Stadium. Other donors had their names placed on the athletic field for a $250,000 contribution and on the scoreboard for $100,000. And for $10,000, you could have your name put on one of the facility's restrooms.

In today's economy, cash-strapped public schools are often turning to private donors to fund major building projects and awarding them naming rights. But in Harford County this week, the school board rejected a $20,000 donation for a scoreboard at Aberdeen High's stadium, citing what many officials concede is a murky policy for naming rights.

Professional teams have long given corporate sponsors naming rights, and now many colleges are pursuing the same policy, said Chris Daley, senior account executive at Maroon PR, a Baltimore-based marketing company. School facilities can receive up to $500,000, based on the area and the scope of an athletic program, he said.

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

The state has no policy against naming rights, and the decision is left up to the local school systems, said David Lever, head of school construction for the state.

But Lever encouraged school systems to look into the benefits of selling naming rights during a conference of school facilities managers in September. The meeting addressed ways to finance the billions of dollars in improvements needed for school facilities across the state.

Two Aberdeen High alumni who are now NFL players offered to donate $20,000 toward the more than $52,000 cost of a new scoreboard. But the county school board rejected the offer this week because the members were told that the brothers, E.J. and Erin Henderson, linebackers for the Minnesota Vikings, wanted the school football field named after them.

However, the school system now is unsure that was the brothers' intent and officials are investigating whose idea the naming rights were. Efforts to reach the Hendersons through their parents and the Vikings were unsuccessful Friday.

"If there was no request to rename the field, there can be another proposal to the board about this donation," said Theresa Kranfeld, a spokeswoman for Harford County schools. "If the donation does not fall into advertising, the board might approve it."

The Harford school board acted correctly in rejecting the offer, Daley said, but not because of the county's policy on naming rights. The amount was just not enough, he said.

"Why give away the whole farm for $20,000?" Daley asked. "That turns away the possibility of future donors who might possibly offer more money."

Leonard Wheeler, Harford's school board president, said he is more concerned with a naming policy that needs clarification and the long-term maintenance costs associated with donations than he is about what a facility will be called. He also fears the board would be setting a precedent that could spawn many more requests and become a problem.

"Right now, we have no clear policy," he said. "We have to be careful about setting a precedent. There would be more requests after this one, and the process could cause dissension. Then there is the problem with our own fiscal responsibility for maintaining something like a scoreboard."

Kranfeld said, "We are looking into revising and clarifying policy."

Schools often name a facility after a distinguished faculty member or dangle naming rights to motivate donors. St. Paul's School in Brooklandville recently named Fisher Hall for the chair of the capital building campaign who made the largest gift to the project. Woodlawn High School in Baltimore County has football field lights named after Kevin Liles, an alumnus and music record executive who made a large donation.

Charles Herndon, a spokesman for Baltimore County schools, said school board policy allows naming of buildings and athletic fields for donors, but the amount required is decided by the school community and the board.

"It is up to the discretion of the board, the school and those involved in the process," he said.

Calvert Hall College High School has taken advantage of naming rights, assigning donors' names to nearly every athletic facility on its campus, including its tennis courts, football and baseball facilities. There's the Paul Angelo Russo stadium for football and lacrosse, named after a past parent, and the Carlo Crispino baseball stadium, named after a graduate.

"All of our fields and our stadiums are named in honor or memory of someone through donations," said Doug Heidrick, the communications director.

Efforts in Washington County to sell naming rights for school projects are viewed as an example for other localities in the state.

About a half-century ago when money was tight, Washington County built two high schools, one with an auditorium and one with an athletic field. Though North Hagerstown High School's community wanted a stadium of its own, the $4.1 million price tag was too high.

Deputy Superintendent Boyd Michael said the Stadium Committee, a community group of the school's booster club and volunteers, solicited donations from individuals and companies, then worked with local officials to build the project.

After the $500,000 contribution was secured from the Michael G. Callas Charitable Trust, corporate donations came pouring in. The Mike Callas Stadium at North Hagerstown High School also has a donated field, scoreboard and a brick wall with plaques that showcase the names of individuals and companies that donated money. Even seats in the stadium are named after people.

Michael, who gave the presentation on naming rights to school facilities managers around the state at the conference in September, said the school board's OK is required to approve major donations. But small donations such as those for seats were accepted without a board vote.

When the county wanted to build a new magnet high school for the arts, Vincent Goh donated the building. The Barbara Ingram School for the Arts bears the name of his late wife, a county art teacher, and the rooms have also been named for donors.

Daley, the Maroon accountant, said school systems should give themselves options and flexibility when selling naming rights.

"Spell out what you are looking for," he said. "Each sponsorship should be open for negotiations. You might even put a term limit on the name, especially for something like a scoreboard that will eventually need renovations."