Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Corporate Redecorating of Our Public Schools

An article in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel this morning highlights an unfortunate trend for many of our public schools in Wisconsin. It discusses the selling-off of naming rights for school facilities to corporate donors.

In the past it seemed to be good enough to collect a large amount of modest donations from citizens and businesses alike to fund the restoration or construction of facilities in places like public schools, but now apparently school districts are looking for that solo home run donation.

And while there used to be simple, elegant plaques recognizing the various donors for a project, now the entire name of the area is being dedicated to the big corporate donor.

While these big donations certainly don't need to come from corporate donors, the reality is that corporations are in many cases the only entities that have the funds to serve as a sole donor. In an elementary school in New Berlin, for example, the commons area will now be known as InPro Commons Area after a $150,000 donation by the InPro corporation.

While these naming rights donations don't necessarily spell the immediate end of public facilities as we know them, they do highlight some disturbing trends.

One, they distract from original purpose of public facilities, which is to benefit the public and the public alone. When an entire facility or area of a facility is named after a corporate donor, it becomes more about advertising than recognition.

In contrast to simple plaques that acknowledge donors for their gift, tying donations to naming rights suggests there is more at stake for the donor--specifically, there is a return expected.

That makes it an investment, not a gift.

Two, by turning their attention to seeking big donors ahead of a large number of smaller ones or even additional public revenue, school districts are setting themselves up for relying on the funding from these types of donations in the future.

According to the New Berlin school district, for example, anything and everything is up for sale. As the vice president for the New Berlin school board explains: "We're not going to turn down somebody who wants to put their name on any of our buildings."

The more this becomes the norm for school districts, the more reliant upon it they will become. And as anyone in finance can tell you, with funding comes control.

I just wonder how long it will be before control becomes one of the investment demands.

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