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IS THE PRIZE RIGHT? Burgeoning school sales questioned

THE BALTIMORE EVENING SUN

For 7-year-old Patrick Pattillo, the prizes seemed secondary to the reason for winning them.

The second-grader at Shady Spring Elementary School recently garnered two of the top awards at his eastern Baltimore County school: a large portable radio and an acrylic, see-through telephone.

He won them for being among his school's most prolific salespeople, hawking holiday wrapping paper, bows and candles, and tins full of Gummi Bears, chocolates and peanut brittle.

"I feel proud of myself," Patrick said. "I did it to help the PTA, to get the computers so all the kids could play on them."

Patrick, who has been involved in school sales since kindergarten, is among a legion of part-time peddlers recruited by local schools to raise funds. [Actually, parents end up doing the selling.]

Once a minor source of extra money for school field trips, library books or band uniforms, school fund-raising has become a major undertaking at many area schools.

But some people are questioning the equity of the arrangement, especially when schools in affluent neighborhoods or with active parent groups can mount sophisticated fund-raising efforts to purchase expensive extras that other schools, in poorer districts, can not. Moreover, critics say, the prizes may be setting the wrong example, teaching students that a good deed always warrants a payoff.

The method of raising money has grown from the traditional school bake sale and spaghetti dinner to slick campaigns that advertise items in glossy catalogs, require a working knowledge of bookkeeping and promise much larger payoffs.

This year's first major wave of fund-raising already has passed through most local schools, with products such as holiday gift wrap recently delivered and passed among relatives and neighbors. Some schools are into their second money-making event of the year, perhaps a book fair or class picture sale.

Schools benefit by being able to make purchases of large-ticket items, such as computers, playground equipment and major renovations, beyond the budget that tax dollars supply.

A whole industry has been spawned by the practice. Companies supply schools with a greater variety and quality of things to sell, hold pep rallies to kick off the campaigns and give away prizes to encourage the effort. The prizes can be as modest as a portable radio, or as lavish as cash gifts of $100 or limousine rides to a favorite fast-food joint.

SOME PARENTS ALARMED

The growing number of fund-raisers -- some schools hold them almost year around -- plus the size of some of the prizes, has alarmed some parents and school officials.

Carolyn Roeding, president of the Anne Arundel County Council of PTAs, said school sales events have become a necessary evil in most school districts.

"The PTAs are being viewed as a fund-raising vehicle to take up where the Board of Education leaves off," Roeding said. "It's very hard to increase the school board budget, with inflation and everything."

At a recent meeting to nominate a school board candidate, Roeding said, one of the hopefuls proposed that school nurses' salaries be funded through the PTAs. "This is the mentality of what a PTA should be," Roeding said.

She added that, while she feels PTAs should be more involved with educational issues, many school parent and teacher groups have been made to feel that fund-raising is "a necessity."

And the idea of fund-raising and prizes has carried over into other PTA activities, with schools turning increasingly to the business community for resources they would otherwise not have.

At Pine Grove Middle School in Baltimore County last year, an event designed to encourage reading among students culminated with the presentation of two grand prizes: a pair of Caribbean cruises donated by a local travel agency.

Pine Grove Principal John Jedlicka said the school had solicited local businesses for donations, but was embarrassed by the size of some. "We sort of accidentally fell into that," he said, adding that this year the school is opting for "a scaled-down event."

"Some people believe, if you want kids to read, or do anything other than something illegal, you should try every means possible to get them to do that," Jedlicka continued. "And, if you're in a situation where you need certain things for your school, the odds are you might resort to more fund-raising."

Prompted by a growing number of critics who felt parent groups were involved in too much fund-raising, the state PTA organization last August sent letters to its 990 affiliated schools in Maryland, asking that they limit their money-raising activities.

"We wanted to downplay the big fund-raising," state PTA President Edwina Green said. "We're not about the business of funding our schools, we're about the business of being an advocate, of dealing with the legislative agencies over funding issues, about addressing disciplinary problems in our schools and focusing on the curriculum."

But the letter was little more than a warning, and fund-raising has continued apparently with little or no abatement.

DRIVING FOR PROFIT

One of the people schools turn to organize their drives is Jeff Bingham, of Falter fund-raising, a division of the George J. Falter Co. of Baltimore.

Bingham said business has gone very well since Falter began doing fund-raisers in 1988, despite increasing competition. As many as 40 fund-raising companies are estimated to be doing school-related business in the Baltimore area.

Bingham says most schools choose to give top sellers monetary gifts, usually $100. Other schools may choose bicycles or video game sets, he said.

"I personally would rather see them not get prizes," Bingham said. "Parents feel it's too competitive. And, when they get the brochures, especially if they have four or five kids in a family, how do they divide it up and try to get their kids prizes too? It's not equitable."

The inequities extend beyond the individual school, he said. Of the 200 schools he has as clients, fewer than 40 are in Baltimore.

While a school in a middle-class area may do better than a more affluent school because of stronger parent involvement, Bingham said, "some city schools may do four fund-raisers a year to catch up to where a suburban school is."

Some of the area's school districts have established guidelines for what can be purchased through fund-raisers, although no district has attempted to prohibit the purchase of certain items.

In Baltimore County, school system spokesman Richard Bavaria said guidelines counsel PTAs to limit their purchases to supplemental activities such as plays and field trips, while avoiding the purchase of instructional materials. Instructional materials would include things normally bought by the school system, such as books, paper and computers.

Bavaria said the guidelines are designed to maintain "parity" between schools in poorer districts and those in wealthier communities. But, he added, "I'm not going to tell you these things aren't purchased anyway."

BUSINESSES WOOED

In Baltimore, spokesman Douglas J. Neilson said the city school system tries to address the equity issue by pressing harder for business partnerships at less-affluent schools. Often, however, such schools are never adopted by a local business, he said.

"Some schools, unfortunately, are considered less desirable," Neilson said. "What the real world doesn't realize is that we have good kids in those schools, too, and they deserve the same as everyone else."

Meanwhile, at Shady Spring, in the Rosedale section of Baltimore County, PTA President Debbie Sullivan supports the practice by saying that the prizes children receive are minimal compared with the amount of good that is done through fund-raising.

Shady Spring students, with the help of their parents, sold close to $21,000 in goods this fall and will net about $10,000 to expand the school's computer room and buy new equipment.

Sullivan also pointed to colorful tot-lot equipment that sits behind the school. It was purchased with money from a fund-raiser last year and benefits not only the school's youngest children, but neighborhood families as well.

Said Sullivan: "That's something to look at and be proud of."

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