From selling designer purses and cooking fuel, to allowing ads on lockers or the back of yellow buses, school districts throughout South Jersey are finding inventive ways to make money in an effort to close their budget gaps.
Cuts to state aid and a fairly new cap on the tax levy have left education officials desperately seeking solutions from outside the box to keep programs flowing. A new law approved last year will allow school districts to sell advertising on their buses, and while the idea has drawn some criticism, a number of area districts, including Medford and Mount Laurel, are eager to take advantage of this new revenue system and are waiting on the state to outline the regulations.
Medford’s business administrator actually had a hand in helping draft the legislation, according to school Superintendent Joseph Del Rossi. The district hopes to go beyond just buses and bring the ads inside. They’ve hired a marketing company, A3, to help figure out how—and what—it can “sell.”
“We might want to do our media centers, hallways, lockers, the cafeteria,” Del Rossi says. “We feel comfortable with it. And when your dollars are continuing to shrink, that money has to come from somewhere.”
Cherry Hill is taking a similar approach. For the past two years, the Cherry Hill Education Foundation’s naming rights committee has been developing a plan for how to let businesses—or even private individuals—put their names on school property for a fee.
Eleanor Stoffman, head of the committee, says the 19-building district has a lot of “prime real estate” that could be merchandised to help raise money. One of those is Cherry Hill West’s “new auditorium.” That’s what it’s still called, even though it was built 12 years ago. Stoffman believes a venue with large exposure, such as that, would likely come with a higher price tag than the elementary schools’ libraries, athletic fields, or even parking lots. One thing is certain: Everything is being considered.
“With cuts in state aid, we saw how necessary it was to think bigger and not have the burden on the taxpayers. They’re stretched,” Stoffman laments.
Relying on the community—from parents to local businesses—has become an even more important way for districts to find the funds they need without having to hike up the tax bill.
In Haddonfield, school board President Steve Weinstein says parents from the close-knit town have always been involved in the school district. But, as funding has continued to shrink, parents have turned up the volume a bit. Three years ago, after noticing how much the high school’s auditorium was in need of a facelift, parents formed a committee to start raising funds to fix it up—money the district couldn’t afford to borrow for the improvements, Weinstein says.
So, the Haddonfield group formed Lights! Camera! Action!, and after a few years of fundraising, which included everything from bake sales to selling CDs, the committee members—some whose children have since graduated—gave $70,000 to the district in December. The money is being used to buy a new sound system and curtains, but they’re still chipping away at their $150,000 goal.
“These parents were really motivated to move this forward and the community supported the parents. They really got behind this,” says Weinstein. “They’re very supportive of our school system.”
Business leaders are also stepping up their contributions. Last year, a $20,000 grant from Lockheed Martin helped to fund a science and technology program for the students in Mount Laurel, says board President Robert Frey. And they’re hoping to get another grant next year.
“The program basically teaches kids how to build underwater submersibles. Our teachers came up with the idea and shopped it around [to local businesses]. This is a great thing.
What it does is it gives the kids extra things; things that we don’t have to charge the taxpayers for. We have to be more active soliciting outside money so we can keep the program up to where it should be without increasing taxes,” Frey says. “We’re not just running around and spending money; we’re looking at ways to save their money.”
In order to make some green, Collingswood is thinking green. When the cafeteria staff is done cooking the tater tots for the day, rather than dispose of the used cooking oil, the district is now selling it to a company for 20 cents a gallon. Moorestown-based Sustainable Energy Associates takes the fuel and turns it into soap under an arrangement the district signed last summer, according to Collingswood Superintendent Scott Oswald.
While the unique deal has only net the district about $500 so far, it’s just one example of the ways school officials are thinking differently, Oswald says. A greenhouse that’s set to open this month will also save the district on some expenses in the kitchen, like the costs of fruits and vegetables. They even hope to bring in some cash by growing and selling flowers during holidays and events.
“We really do look for any way we can grow revenue,” Oswald says. “We get that the taxpayers are worn out and tired.”
One thing that taxpayers haven’t grown tired of—at least in Washington Township—is a creative fundraiser that takes the idea of Bingo to a whole new level. A few years ago, the Washington Township Education Foundation saw the success a North Jersey school district was having with “Coach Bingo,” a game with designer handbags as prizes, and decided to give it a try in their own backyard.
The first year it was held, women of all ages lined up outside the venue hours in advance—with coolers of snacks and bottles of wine in hand—just to make sure they got the best seats. For $30 a ticket, each person gets 16 Bingo cards to play. The prize? A coveted Coach purse.
“It’s definitely not your church basement Bingo,” quips Irene Rosenberg, vice president of the Washington Township Education Foundation. “It gets a little rowdy.”
The event is now held twice a year and, raising $10,000, it’s their second-biggest fundraiser next to an annual golf outing. Since the foundation’s inception in 1996, they’ve raised more than $150,000 to provide funding for programs “the district just doesn’t have the money for,” Rosenberg says. “There’s only so much money to go around.”
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 12 (March, 2012).
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