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The Pitch Is In, and It's Good

Patrick Merewether

If you look hard enough, there are plenty of similarities between a car dealership and a strip club. For starters, both rely heavily on sex to sell. (If you've ever been to an auto show, the comparison becomes even clearer.) You'll probably find more pinkie rings per person in either business than among the general population. And -- there's no nice way to put this -- neither strip-club owners nor car salesmen are likely to make the top ten in a parental list of role models for their children.

Still, it's probably a safe bet that in a contest of moral superiority, a car salesman would come out slightly ahead of a porn man. Which makes it that much more unusual that Jefferson County School District R-1 could soon have a new library financed in part by titty-bar magnate Troy Lowrie, while not so long ago it thumbed its nose at a car dealership looking to help pay for the district's new athletic stadium.

Lowrie, you may recall, is the Denver owner of PT's and a handful of other strip clubs here and in a few other states ("The Daily Grind," April 13). He has offered 660,000 shares of a company of which he is partial owner to HOPE/Columbine, the private organization trying to raise money to build a new library at Columbine High School. The company does not own the strip clubs, but Lowrie was alerted to the cause by one of his exotic dancers, Angela Sanders, a daughter of Dave Sanders, the teacher who was killed in the rampage at the high school one year ago. Last week, the members of HOPE/Columbine voted to accept the donation.

It is important, of course, to acknowledge the difference between a new sports venue and a library to replace the one defiled by Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris. One needed to be built because a school district outgrew its facilities. The other is being replaced because the existing space was the scene of unimaginable horror. The new field will be a place to watch and celebrate what children can accomplish; the new library is to forget what children are capable of. In some ways, there simply is no comparison.

But there is one similarity worth examining: Both the new football field and the library are projects in which private -- i.e., non-taxpayer -- money was solicited to lay the bricks and pour the cement. Yet how each of the two Jefferson County parties went about finding -- and then deciding whether to keep -- the scratch says much about the shifting sands of whose money is morally acceptable for our kids and whose isn't.

Like it or not, private money in public schools is becoming more commonplace. Lately, some of the money has been trickling into classrooms and academic programs. Yet more often than not, the first choice for private and/or corporate sponsorships is athletics.

That's because, while the link between sponsorship money and what happens in a classroom is still being explored and tested, corporate loot is an old story in sports. It's hard to remember a time when race cars weren't moving billboards or when, even at publicly funded universities, a top coach was compensated only by his salary and not a whopping supplemental shoe contract. Locally, the University of Colorado also collects hundreds of thousands of dollars every year in exchange for sewing a prominent swoosh on every Buffs football jersey. The school's football coach, Gary Barnett, earns $150,000 in annual salary -- a figure that is $40,000 less than he gets from his Nike shoe deal every year.

Companies with something to sell are always looking to extend their reach to untapped (and younger) markets, so these days, sponsorship deals are becoming more frequent at the high-school level. The point of entry has been sports, for the simple reason that such deals are already familiar. It may make no difference in the mind of a high-school student, but to parents and boards of education, using corporate money for athletics in exchange for a sign above the end zone is somehow more palatable than using it to buy new books and hanging a Nike banner in the library.

Another reason for the marriage of high school sports and private money is that as cash gets tighter, public-school athletics are looked at as more expendable than they once were. The word "extracurricular" is beginning to take on a financial meaning it once didn't have. "The reality today is, you either get private money for a stadium, or you don't get a new stadium," says Christine Smith, who, as director of enterprise activities for Denver Public Schools, is charged with finding new sources of money to fill the widening cracks in the district's budget.

Like many districts, Denver has been accepting more corporate and private money lately. A decade ago there were barely enough contributions and sponsorship deals to replace a few books, but over the past five years the district has collected more than $12 million. Smith says the amount of private money flowing into the district increases by about 20 percent each year.

Although a few deals make money for the district's general fund (last month school officials announced an agreement involving advertisements on the DPS Web site that could bring in $1 million a year), much of the money has gone exclusively for sports. "We are a district of great athletic need," notes Smith. Seven Colorado Rockies -- Andres Galarraga, Eric Young, Larry Walker, Dante Bichette, Pedro Astacio, Brian Bohanon and Vinnie Castilla -- have donated money to build athletic fields. Phil Long Ford has sponsored playground upkeep and development. Icon Office Solutions and Ascent Entertainment (the former owner of the Nuggets and Avalanche) have paid for an entire athletic program for Denver middle-school students.

Yet this is still new territory, and administrators have proceeded warily when signing up sponsors. "We've got a hit list of what is inappropriate," explains Smith. Like the famous seven words announcers once couldn't say on the radio, there are seven categories from which DPS will not accept money: tobacco, alcohol, firearms, sex, political causes, religious entities and -- oddly -- hygiene products. (Explains Smith, "Would you name your stadium after a feminine hygiene product?")

Sometimes all it takes to kill a deal is a bad -- if obscure -- connection to something that might appear to corrupt impressionable young minds. A few years back, for example, the Denver district declined to sign a sponsorship agreement with Nabisco. The reason had nothing to do with lousy crackers. Rather, the company was owned by R.J. Reynolds, the cigarette manufacturer. Smith concedes that only the most precocious high school economics student would be able to make the association, but administrators preferred not to take a chance.

Before signing any agreement, the district does its best to vet potential donors. "We meet individually and personally with each potential corporate sponsor," Smith says. "We ask, 'Is there anything in your past that would make this embarrassing for either one of us?'"

Yet she points out that the district must be reasonable as well as protective. "You can go into about any corporate history -- as you can with any family history -- and find a black mark," she points out. That proved true in 1995, when a Sports Illustrated article revealed that three years earlier, Dante Bichette had hit his then-nineteen-year-old girlfriend, who was pregnant at the time. (The two later married.) By the time the incident was made public, however, Bichette had already promised $30,000 for the Dante Bichette Field at Skinner Middle School.

The news led officials to re-evaluate their decision -- momentarily. "Something like that comes up and you immediately think, 'Do I want young girls hearing this?'" Smith says. Still, the check had already been cashed and the field already named. So school administrators took a deep breath, plugged their noses and moved on.

Last year the district was presented with the exact same dilemma. Several months ago, Pedro Astacio Field opened at Doull Elementary School in southwest Denver. The ballpark is named for its benefactor, the Rockies ace pitcher -- whom the Immigration and Naturalization Service announced in early March it intended to deport because of his guilty plea on domestic-violence charges. (When Astacio retracted his plea, the INS backed off on its deportation proceedings.) Last week, Mike Langley, DPS's director of facilities management, said that despite the sign, the district "is holding off on dedicating the field or deciding what the name will be, for obvious reasons."

Still, at such times, says Smith, the conclusion is that the money ensures a greater good for children than any potential harm by association. "John Kennedy's father was a bootlegger, and he was a philanderer," she says, "and we still have a John Kennedy High School."

Smith adds that, as a fundraiser, she is prepared to slice fairly close to the bone in order to bring in money for her schools. For instance, she hypothesizes, "If Coors Brewery wanted to donate money to our district in exchange for placing a logo up at the next football game, there's no deal," she says. "But if Bill Coors wants to write a check to XYZ Elementary School because he happens to like a teacher there, that's okay with me."

Recently, Tom Manoogian helped the North Jeffco Parks and Recreation District ink a deal with Pepsi and Soft Play playground equipment to help cover the cost of the district's massive new Apex Center, on 72nd Avenue and Ward Road. As the owner of Major League Marketing, it is Manoogian's niche to hook up sponsors with public entities looking for private cash. He also brought together Pepsi and Hyland Hills Park and Recreation District for a deal that will be worth several million dollars over the next fifteen years. (Additionally, Hyland Hills has signed up other sponsors on its own. The district's new hockey rink is called the Sun Microsystems Ice Center, about forty "partners" have purchased signs around the rinks, and the facility's three Zamboni ice-grooming vehicles have been reconfigured to look like a shopping cart, a Range Rover and an earth-moving machine as part of sponsorship deals.)

Manoogian says the arrangements make sense for everyone: The districts get money for new athletic facilities, thus saving taxpayers money, and the companies get an exclusive contract to sell their products. Still, he admits that his business has boundaries. "I wouldn't do cigarettes for schools," he says. "And I wouldn't do alcohol for schools." Even a new Tequila sign at Coors Field bothers him. "That's hard liquor," he says, offended. "What's that all about?"

That a field named for a beer can be considered acceptable while a liquor named for a Mexican town is not shows there is still plenty of ambivalence about what is appropriate and what isn't when it comes time to save a few bucks of public money. Nowhere has this been more obvious than in Jefferson County R-1's attempts to raise money for its new $12.3 million athletic complex off Route 93 outside Golden.

In 1997, the school district was running short of cash and playing fields, so administrators retained Manoogian to scare up private sponsorships for a new stadium. He started off quickly, signing up two heavy hitters. US West agreed to pay $2 million over ten years in return for naming rights to the complex, and Pepsi pledged $2.1 million in exchange for exclusive rights to sell its beverages throughout the district.

After that, though, Manoogian's efforts began to fall flat. "The concept of corporate sponsorship in education can scare a lot of people off," he says in retrospect.

By early 1998, for instance, it appeared as though Manoogian had brokered a lucrative deal with the Denver Post. In exchange for about $95,000 a year, the paper would be exclusively distributed within the school district and get some promotional signs in the new stadium. But confusion over the proposal -- the Rocky Mountain News later submitted a better bid -- killed the agreement.

Later, "we were asked to bring a photographer to the table," Manoogian recalls. So in exchange for the exclusive contract to take class pictures of all the district's students, Lifetouch Photography agreed to pay $120,000 over five years -- a total of $600,000 -- toward the new stadium.

Yet individual schools balked at the prospect of being told who could take their students' pictures, and the deal was modified. Now, according to Mike Mitchell, the school district's director of procurement management, two companies -- Lifetouch and The Picture Lady -- compete for business at individual schools and then give a percentage of their profits to the athletic complex. The result: This year, instead of the original $120,000 arranged by Manoogian, the district took in only $31,000.

Other deals were either killed early on or ignored to death. Lakewood Fordland promised to contribute $95,000 a year for five years toward the athletic field in exchange for the right to supply homecoming vehicles, holding a student/parent discount night at the dealership and being named official dealership of the district. But, concedes Mitchell, "we didn't act in a timely fashion, and it went by the wayside." Another Manoogian-arranged association, with an athletic apparel company and worth an estimated $85,000 a year, fell apart when the district calculated the company was too small to pull it off.

When the dust settled, the only two deals the district actually finalized were the original ones with Pepsi and US West. (Recently, Mitchell says another sponsor signed on: Evergreen Disposal, a local garbage company, agreed to give about $1,000 a year in exchange for a sign at the new complex.) As a result, despite all the talk of big-money sponsorships, Jefferson County taxpayers will be picking up more than two-thirds of the cost of the new stadium.

So what is the lesson to be found in Jefferson County's stadium and its HOPE/Columbine library? To a degree, this is a hypothetical question. The library fund must take what it is offered or fail. By comparison, when the Jefferson County school district blew its sponsorship deals, it had the luxury of falling back into a taxpayer-supported net. Administrators simply decided to delay a few other projects and build the stadium now instead.

Still, the public money being spent on the complex could have been put to other uses. For instance, the district could have lowered the fees it charges students to participate in sports -- $100 per child per sport (Denver schools charge no fee). Or it could have shifted the money to the classroom. In my tiny Jeffco mountain elementary school, parents are considering pooling their own money to hire another teacher because the district says it can't afford to.

The trick to accepting lucre, of course, is to keep the ultimate goal in mind and ask: Does the benefit of the sponsorship money outweigh the moral price tag of receiving it? Are the students at Skinner -- many of them poor and minorities -- better off having a ball field named after a domestic abuser than having a crummy ball field or no ball field at all? Would Columbine students be more harmed by living with a place tainted by murder or by studying in a new library funded in part by a strip-club owner?

Put that way, the answers are obvious. What the Jeffco stadium and HOPE/Columbine deals show more than anything is that there are few perfect deals. So Columbine's new library may be built using money raised by naked dancers. Meanwhile, after much soul-searching and hand-wringing, Jeffco's new athletic field -- scheduled to open at 7 p.m., September 28, for the football game between Columbine and Pomona -- will be named for US West, a company that three months ago was ordered by the Public Utility Commission to pay a $12.8 million penalty for inflicting lousy phone service on Colorado residents. When the doors of each facility swing open, who can say which organization has staked out the higher ground?


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