2016-01-29 / Front Page

South Portland schools for sale?

Board splits on proposal to accept sponsorships
By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

Julia Stanton, second from right, a student representative to the South Portland Board of Education, speaks in favor of accepting corporate sponsorships to augment the school department’s athletics budget, during a Jan. 25 school board workshop held in the SPHS Learning Commons. Listening are, from left, Superintendent Ken Kunin, Director of Curriculum Rebecca Brown, school board member Karen Callaghan, and student representative Amelia Papi. (Duke Harrington photo) Julia Stanton, second from right, a student representative to the South Portland Board of Education, speaks in favor of accepting corporate sponsorships to augment the school department’s athletics budget, during a Jan. 25 school board workshop held in the SPHS Learning Commons. Listening are, from left, Superintendent Ken Kunin, Director of Curriculum Rebecca Brown, school board member Karen Callaghan, and student representative Amelia Papi. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — The South Portland Board of Education is split on a proposal to augment the school department’s athletic budget by accepting corporate sponsorships, an idea one director likened to “selling our souls.”

At a school board workshop held Monday, Jan. 25 in the high school learning commons, Athletic Director Todd Livingston unveiled a two-pronged plan to augment his $705,287 budget beginning with the new fiscal year that starts July 1. While all six school board members present embraced the idea of selling individual sponsorships in return for Red Riot window decals, T-shirts and event tickets, they split 3-3 on the idea of erecting signs and billboards with business logos.

Board members Mary House and Libby Reynolds, along with board Chairman Dick Matthews, described themselves as being in “enthusiastic support” of selling corporate sponsorships, while directors Rick Carter and Tappan Fitzgerald were opposed. School Director Karen Callaghan said she was “on the fence.”

While Callaghan opposed the idea of corporate involvement in school athletics in principle, she said that, for the good of the program — and because of Livingston’s compelling personal story about how sports can keep some kids in school — she could be swayed into accepting a much smaller number of signs on sports fields and in the gym than originally proposed.

“You’ll have to convince me,” she told Matthews.

That leaves school board member Sara Goldberg, absent from Monday’s meeting, as the potential swing vote on the issue when the board meets Monday, Feb. 8.

Superintendent Ken Kunin said he would bring a formal proposal to the board at that meeting for a first reading.

Based on feedback at the Jan. 25 workshop, Kunin said the proposal will be scaled back somewhat from Livingston’s initial idea — which included multi-year contracts with local and national brands for dozens of signs to be erected around the perimeter of the George E. Martin Memorial Field, as well as on the scoreboard and atop bleachers. Livingston also called for dozens of signs ringing the inner walls and scoreboard of Beal Gymnasium.

That concept seemed to be more than Carter could take.

“We looked at this years ago on the policy committee and I think it’s a rat’s hole that’s hard to get out of,” he said. “We’re saying all of these signs in all of these locations would go to athletics, but I’m not sure there aren’t other programs that would say, ‘Hold on here. We use the field. Why aren’t we getting a piece of that pie?’ Is it OK for the drama club to sell space in the auditorium? Once you start to sell your soul, you’ve sold it.

“We don’t want to look like you’re walking into the mall and we’re trying to sell you something,” Carter said. “I choke at that idea. We’re a public school. I think this is the wrong way to go.”

According to Livingston, 80 percent of his annual budget goes toward salaries and coaching stipends. But even at that, there are 13 posts that, over the years, have fallen outside the regular school operating budget.

That’s about $31,000, depending on what posts end up in the school budget this year and which coaches end up paid by booster groups, Kunin said.

“And as I looked at our budget, it’s not just stipends, but some of our basic athletic operating costs that we have shifted onto our booster groups,” said Kunin, who is in his first year as superintendent in South Portland, and now in the midst of crafting his first annual budget.

As an example of the slow creep of athletic bills onto boosters, Kunin said the school department budgets $2,500 for new uniforms per team on a rotating basis, buying for three teams per year.

“It’s many, many years until each comes around again,” he said. “But when I started looking at bills, it seemed to me the typical team was really (spending) $6,000 to $8,000 to replace a set of varsity uniforms. The boosters have really done a remarkable job of filling holes.”

“Our boosters are helping us with at least one-third to half the cost of uniforms, each year,” Livingston said.

In all, Kunin said, the athletic department could use an additional $40,000, at least, per year. As another example, Living- ston said that 4 percent of his annual budget goes to supplies and game balls account for 42 percent of that 4 percent.

“For our boosters to raise $10,000 per year is a real battle,” Livingston said. “To look at our football coach and say our boosters are also going to have to help us buy helmets this year, that’s a real safety issue.

“Our helmets go out for reconditioning every year because, obviously, head injuries and concussions are something that is a prevalent concern these days,” Livingston said. “Even with reconditioning, each helmet has a shelf life of just 10 years. But we currently do not have a schedule of replacing helmets on a yearly basis. We’re going to come up against a year soon where we’re going to be in trouble.”

In all, Kunin said the athletic budget could use an injection of between $60,000 and $75,000. However, rather than look to corporate advertising to cover that shortfall, Carter said that money should be added to the regular operating budget.

Fitzgerald agreed.

“I am not in favor of this — the corporate sponsorship end of it anyway — in any shape, way or form,” he said. “We just put $40 million-plus into a new campus and we’re going to make it look like a flea market? I just think that would look ridiculous.”

A former head of both PTA and booster groups, Fitzgerald said he understood how much work parents do to support their children’s athletic ambitions, with “all the fund raisers, and all the car washes, and all that other crap.” More of that cost, he said, should fall on the taxpayer.

“I think athletics should be funded in South Portland,” he said. “I think it’s an important part of the fabric and culture of South Portland High School, and has been for years. I’m not a fan of saying things like, volleyball or freshman soccer, you have to pay your own way. I don’t think they should have to do that.

“If it’s important enough to be part of the South Portland community here at the high school, and it’s important enough to have our students participate in it, at some level it should be funded though the budget,” Fitzgerald said.

However, Matthews countered that, as has happened in the past, it may happen again when the annual budget comes down to crunch time that directors will be forced into making a decision between an athletic position and an academic one, to keep taxes from growing too much in any one year. And, invariably, it’s the athletic post that loses out, Matthews said.

“This program would get money into the budget that you can count on, and not just hope for,” he said.

While the school board was split on the idea of selling signs to raise money for athletics, audience members at Monday’s workshop session rose in unanimous support of the idea.

“I sat in the audience last year and watched you cut my first team program, and measure it against an (English language learner) teacher,” said girls soccer program head Jeff Selser, who has two children in the school system. “I’ve seen you cut coaching stipends to fund something else. And last year, given the choices, I actually got up and said, ‘Hey, I think you should save fifth-grade band,’ knowing I was stabbing my own program in the heart.

“So, guys, please, I’m begging you, this is a great idea,” Selser said.

“It will support things people need and want,” agreed Gracie Johnston, vice president of the volleyball boosters. “I think it can be done tastefully. I don’t think, with all respect, that we are selling our souls to anyone. It’s not just us taking the money, it’s also about the pride a local business feels in supporting the school, one their own children likely attend.”

“The back of our stadium right now, it’s ugly,” Selser said. “Putting some signs up there would actually make it look better. And when the athletes see those signs, they don’t think, ‘Oh, our school sold us out,” they’ll think, ‘These local businesses are proud of us. They’re supporting us. That makes me feel good about myself.’”

Both Selser and Johnson said other area high schools that allow advertising on school grounds, including Greeley, Biddeford and Kennebunk, have found ways to do so without it seeming intrusive or overtly commercial.

Julia Stanton, one of two student representatives on the school board, sided with those in favor of Livingston’s advertising proposal.

“Having done Little League as a kid, and as an athlete at South Portland High School, I’ve definitely experienced firsthand how much fundraising you have to do with the boosters,” she said. “So, I definitely support this.

“And, as I’ve traveled around to other schools in this state, as well as out of state for marching band, I’ve seen schools that do advertising on their fields and in their gymnasiums, and I don’t think it’s too gaudy, or too much of an eyesore,” Stanton said. “ I think it doesn’t take away from the beauty or natural appeal of the space. I think it’s just a thank you to the businesses that support the teams.”

Stanton also said the drama club already sells advertising to support its events, but in a program, not on the wall.

“I for one support this idea,” said school board member Mary House. “I realized our boosters did great, great work, but I was shocked — I did not realize until the superintendent put it on the table — at how much they actually are doing. I think our community has been very good to us, but they can only give so much, and it’s very challenging constantly going back to the same folks.”

“This is something that’s a very common thing in other parts of the country,” Livingston said. “I think Maine is a little bit behind the bell curve. I just think this is a great way to generate revenue, to help support our student athletes, and our boosters, and our school budget, and our community.”

Although Kunin will bring a proposal to the school board at its Feb. 8 meeting, there’s no requirement that he do so.

The current advertising policy of the South Portland school department, last updated in 2011, indicates the school board “has an obligation to ensure that students are not subjected to commercial messages that distract from the educational mission.” Thus, “commercial advertising in the schools is not permitted.”

However, the policy also notes that, “in some instances, exposure to product names, logos or similar trademarks and service marks may be acceptable when the programming, equipment or services clearly can be shown to be of significant benefit to the school program when weighed against the nature of the exposure.”

Therefore, the policy gives the superintendent sole discretion for accepting advertising on school grounds as an exception to the policy.

So, Kunin does not need school board approval to press on with Livingston’s plan.

“That said, I would not embark on this kind of program without bringing it to the board and either getting approval or a decision that, no, we really don’t want to go there,” he said.

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