Longform

Class Warfare

Page 2 of 6

In 1993 Colorado Springs District No. 11 opened a new chapter in education history when it became the first school district in the country to aggressively sell advertising. Situated in one of the state's most conservative communities, the district hadn't managed to push through a bond issue or tax hike in nearly two decades. So it got creative.

At first, says Tracy Cooper, who does double duty as the district's spokeswoman and director of its advertising program, the district handled the ads on its own, selling space along school hallways and on the sides of buses to Burger King and King Soopers. Despite all the initial fuss and furrowed brows, the program earned only $73,000 in the first two years--pocket change for a 33,000-student school district.

Disappointed, the district last year went pro, hiring D.D. Marketing, Inc., of Colorado Springs to help out. District 11 now offers sophisticated exposure packages that would do the Denver Broncos proud. Twelve thousand dollars buys a corporate sign and logo on five buses and in all 52 schools in the district; a banner at the football stadium, as well as public-service announcements mentioning the company during games; a logo in the district's annual report and employee directory; an ad in the school newspaper; and free tickets to high-school sporting events. In 1996 alone, the district netted nearly $90,000 from its revamped advertising program.

As its revenues increased, District 11 noticed a shift in the way other schools regarded its ambitious fundraising strategy. In the beginning, Cooper says, educators looked down on Colorado Springs as a crass school district that had crossed the line between community partnerships and outright hucksterism. But a funny thing has happened since then: Colorado Springs is now being viewed as a pioneer in the field of creative financing.

Other school districts in Colorado have followed Colorado Springs' lead. Pueblo now sells advertising on its buses. So does Cherry Creek. Last year the Denver school board agreed to sell ads on its buses, too, and within the next few weeks the district will announce a series of major corporate sponsorships that will give generous exposure to several well-known corporations in exchange for their getting a crack at Denver's student consumers, according to district spokesman Richard Frye.

Schools have always relied on parents and neighbors to raise money. Most kids have, at one time or another, sold pizzas for a band trip, wrapped Christmas packages for new art supplies or hawked candy bars to buy football uniforms. Yet teacher contract commitments and increased government mandates have continued to erode the money schools can spend on "extras," and private fundraising is becoming a bigger part of student life.

Hicks says she has noticed a subtle change at national parent-teacher organization conventions, which she attends regularly. In recent years the largest and most active booths have been those sponsored by companies specializing in helping schools squeeze money out of local businesses and communities. "It's much more of a business environment out there these days," adds Frye.

For communities, the perpetual requests can become fatiguing. In the well-to-do suburban foothills districts to the west of Denver, residents are hit up by three levels of fundraisers. They start at the individual school level, where parent-teacher organizations hold at least one or two fundraisers every year.

Next up is the Mountain Schools Fund. Started in 1990 by, among others, local media personality Gregg Dobbs in response to a series of failed bond measures, the fund sponsors an annual telethon. Over the course of a weekend volunteers call literally everybody in the Conifer and Evergreen area and ask them for donations. Each year, the fundraiser has netted about $75,000 (including a matching grant from an Oregon foundation). The money is distributed to the ten mountain schools, which spend it primarily on computers and other technological tools.

The begging doesn't end with the telethon. The Jefferson Foundation, started in 1983, now sports a twenty-member board of trustees and a paid executive director. Through its sponsorship of the annual Crystal Ball at the Arvada Center and other fundraising efforts, the foundation collects more than $100,000 each year from the community, which it then funnels back into worthy school projects scattered throughout the county's schools.

And that's not including the extra fees and payments parents must make above and beyond their yearly tax assessment if they want their children to enjoy the full school experience. Jefferson County, for instance, asks for $75 from each student participating in high-school sports. And because the schools' food-service providers must earn their way--the district cannot and will not subsidize them--Jeffco cafeterias charge market prices for their food or contract out with Pizza Hut or Taco Bell for hot lunches.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer