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Bake sales give way to big bucks

Young sales reps get a taste of commerce while shoring up their schools

Kids wait breathlessly for their names to be called.

Wait to see whether it's their turn to 'come on down.' Whether it's going to be a big-money day, or the day they win the coveted karaoke machine.

Game show? Nah.

It's the Prize and Money Scramble at West Sylvan Middle School, where kids find out what they've won in recognition of their achievements in the field of sales.

Yes, it's fund-raising season, and for many schools, that means finding out who's got the shoe leather to burn and the winningest smile. But the prizes are not the ultimate goal. Cash for the schools is.

And it is big money.

Portland Public Schools spokesman Lew Frederick puts it this way: 'You've heard the saying, 'It's not your father's Oldsmobile.' Well, this is not your father's fund-raiser.'

Indeed. The days of penny-ante bake sales are over.

Impressive results

Nowadays, thousands of dollars can be wrung out of professional sales packages designed to be marketed by kids. Products range from magazine subscriptions to holiday wrapping paper.

More than 100 Oregon middle schools alone are in the magazine business this year, according to Dennis Burkett, owner of Western States Promotion, a company based in Auburn, Calif., that contracts with 40 of the schools. Many elementary schools are working the wrap angle.

• In just a few weeks last month, Jackson Middle School in Southwest Portland racked up $30,000 for its arts program.

• In its fall magazine sale, West Sylvan students peddled enough subscriptions to Time, Cosmo Girl and Sports Illustrated to net a little more than $60,000 for field trips, supplementary classroom supplies and textbooks.

• Ainsworth Elementary in Southwest Portland chose a chain of fund-raisers, including Christmas wrap sales and a holiday tour of homes that together net about $40,000 per year. That money goes to buy laptop computers, digital cameras, teachers' microphones, landscaping services and library books.

• Other schools reported plans for cookie dough sales, coupon book sales and auctions.

The money does not include activity-specific fund raising, say, for sports or clubs. Nor does the money raised in this manner go toward hiring more teachers. A district equity rule lays down ground rules for groups wishing to add teachers to their schools. If they raise more than $5,000, they must pass along one-third of the money they raise to the nonprofit Portland Schools Foundation. The foundation then distributes that money to schools throughout the district.

Prizes, marketing motivate

School officials say that in tight budgetary times, raising additional funds is more crucial than ever. Which is why new methods are necessary.

Take West Sylvan. The school became partners with Western States Promotion, which offers schools 50 percent of the profit from each subscription sold. But the take isn't the only thing that makes this fund-raiser popular in Portland area schools.

There also are the incentives. Each week, kids bring in their subscriptions. The most successful reap a chance at the Prize and Money Scramble game. These aren't just Cracker Jack trinkets, either: At West Sylvan, the prize list includes a Palm Pilot, CD player, $200 cash or a limousine ride to a local restaurant with a group of friends.

Dru Rosenthal, co-chairwoman for the drive, says the prizes really motivate the kids. But organizers don't leave it at that. They make sure the kids are surrounded by reminders of the fund-raising campaign.

A constantly changing display of posters and signs hype the sale, a news brief by the school's video production class each morning gives a play-by-play update on the subscription horse race, and awards are presented during lunch and at breaks Ñ or, rarely, even during class, Rosenthal says.

It all begins with a kickoff assembly during the school day, when kids are released from class to learn about the magazine sales program.

It may seem like a big production, but Rosenthal insists, 'It's critical. We have to let the kids know what we're going to do for them. É We advertise the heck out of it.'

'We cringe a bit'

Rosenthal points out that the magazine drive is the only fund-raiser the school does and that the prizes are provided by the magazine company rather than the school. 'It's also important that kids learn that you have to work hard toward things that are worthwhile,' Rosenthal says.

While most Portland area PTA officials say they hear no complaints about the approach, the Portland school board hears them frequently, Frederick says. 'Absolutely É all the time. Are you kidding?'

A common complaint: The schools are using instructional time for sales talks while the district is cutting school days to make ends meet. Frederick says that's happening less than it used to.

Another concern is the use of kids as a 'marketing force,' he says. 'And I agree. The schools have become the marketing site for an awful lot of stuff.'

But without the money, educators would not get what they need to teach students, Frederick says. 'I think parents are not so much complaining as they are exhausted. Everyone has to fund raise for everything these days. It's almost constant.'

Board member Karla Wenzel says there are other pitfalls in fund raising, such as the fact that schools in higher-income areas can more easily raise cash than those in low-income neighborhoods. The result, she says, is a deepening of inequities. Ê

Despite West Sylvan's fund-raising success, its principal, Ann Gerson, has some misgivings about the process Ñ especially the sales promotions. 'Definitely, we cringe a bit,' she says. 'But if we didn't have all the hype, (the sales) wouldn't happen.'

And she worries that kids are still selling door-to-door, even after the district has forbidden it. 'We tell them to sell to friends and family,' she says. 'But I still have people coming to my door in my neighborhood.'

Gerson concedes that students who sell are materially rewarded for their feats, while those who excel academically rarely are. 'But by having the magazine sale,' she says, the schools are able to pay for 'some concrete recognition for academic excellence.'

Like what? 'Well, we have a citizen of the month where we put their picture up, and they get a certificate. And we put their name in our newsletter.'

Some schools opt for smaller fund-raisers.

Stacy Flaherty, co-president of the PTA at Beaumont Middle School, says she's more likely to ask parents for their time than their money: 'We don't have huge line items that need thousands and thousands of dollars.'

Instead, the fund-raisers at Beaumont Ñ about $6,000 in gift wrap sales and a community movie night Ñ are spent on piano-tuning services or on T-shirts for the school band to wear when it marches in parades.

'We want to put our energy into building community rather than building a big treasury,' Flaherty says.