August 29th, 2000

School Board Ditches Contract with Coca-Cola

By Doug Erickson
Wisconsin State Journal

The Madison School District canned its exclusive vending contract with Coca-Cola Monday, becoming perhaps the first district in the country to dump such a pact.

The 5-2 vote—only Juan Jose Lopez and Ray Allen supported renewing the contract —comes after months of highly charged public debate.

Several board members said the issue generated more constituent feedback than any other issue in the last four years, and the board’s decision is expected to resonate nationally.

While numerous school districts have resisted proposals for exclusive soda contracts, Madison is thought to be the first to do an about-face and reject renewal of an existing contract, according to the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education in Oakland, Calif.

It and other consumer groups hope Madison’s decision sets an example for other districts worried about the growing corporate influence in public schools.

Board member Carol Carstensen, who voted for the contract in 1997, said public opposition swayed her to switch her vote Monday.

‘’What I hear from the community is very strong: This is not what they want to see in our schools,’’ she said.

The district signed a three-year deal with Coke in 1997 that gave the company exclusive selling rights to soft drinks and other Coca-Cola beverages in school vending machines. The company paid the district a $ 100,000 signing bonus and $ 515,000 in upfront commissions.

That deal expired Saturday. A two-year renewal option would have given the district another $ 100,000 signing bonus and a 45 percent commission rate on any sodas sold. That rate is thought to be 10 percent to 20 percent higher than the district would get under a multi-vendor contract, such as it had prior to 1997, or other arrangement.

Supporters of the contract said it gave the district much-needed money while fostering a positive relationship with the business community. But opponents ripped the health benefits of soda and decried the monopolistic nature of the pact.

Last week, Coke offered to reduce the amount of advertising on its high school vending machines by replacing large ‘’Coke’’ panels with generic fronts. And it agreed to loan the district free of charge four non-Coke-related vending machines that the district could stock with whatever nutritional products it wants, such as milk and apple cider.

In the past, Coke has been criticized by some community members for its promotional influence on students and for marketing a product lacking in nutrition.

Allen, who opposed the contract in 1997 but supported it Monday, called the changes ‘’substantive.’’ Turning down Coke’s money would hurt children, something he could not vote to do, he said.

‘’If this money isn’t there, something’s going to have to be cut,’’ he said.

He was joined in supporting the contract by Lopez, who said he is disturbed that the issue galvanized so many people while other issues, such as the fact that only half of all black students in the district graduate, don’t seem to rile as many people.

‘’We don’t even have enough funds for textbooks,’’ Lopez told the audience.  ‘’Do you know that? Do you know that some of our students cannot take a book home after school because we don’t have enough of them? Where are the protests for that?’’

Lopez said rejecting the contract won’t change much. Soda machines will still be in schools; the district will just have less money.

Both he and Allen said that rejecting the contract would send a message to the business community that its financial help is not appreciated.

But others drew a distinction between a business contract, in which a company is expected to benefit financially, and a business partnership, in which the company’s intent is philanthropic.

‘’We do encourage donations from the public and partnerships,’’ said Board President Calvin Williams. ‘’This is neither. This is a contract.’’

Monday’s audience was heavily anti-Coke, with 12 of 16 speakers arguing against renewal. An additional 15 people registered against Coke but did not speak.  Two people registered in favor of Coke but did not speak.

Board member Bill Keys echoed a common audience sentiment—that public schools must be supported first by equitable taxation, not by a dependency on corporate money with strings attached.

Board member Ruth Robarts said the state has fallen so many millions of dollars behind in its commitment to fund mandates such as special education programs that a $ 100,000 signing bonus from Coke is really a small sum.

‘’If we were to fill that sort of financial gap with these kinds of contracts, we’d literally need hundreds of them,’’ she said.

That’s a path she does not want to travel, she said. ‘’The time for us to say ‘no’ is before we get more dependent (on corporate money),’’ she said.

Board member Joann Elder said if the community truly cares about its children, it will find a way to replace the Coke money, ‘’and it won’t be tainted money at the detriment of our children,’’ she said.

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