March 28th, 2006

Meet Me at School in the (Your Name Here) Cafeteria

By Reid Epstein
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

When elementary students in New Berlin walk through the doors of their new school this fall, it’ll take a mouthful to say exactly where they are.

That’s because the school’s entrance, along with the cafeteria and some public areas, will be officially known as the Ronald Reagan Elementary School InPro Commons Area.

While other public schools have named sports stadiums after major donors, New Berlin is believed to be the first Wisconsin district to actively solicit naming rights sponsors for other areas of its schools.

The InPro corporate sponsorship, which is worth $150,000 to the district, is the first of what New Berlin school officials hope will be a gravy train of private money for the Reagan school and the district’s high school additions.

Quite literally, the names of everything from conference rooms to weight rooms are for sale.

“Basically, everything is on the table,” said Matt Weiss, the New Berlin School Board’s vice president. “We’re not going to turn down somebody who wants to put their name on any of our buildings.”

John Ashley, the executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, said other districts have considered taking money from donors but have yet to launch a plan as ambitious as New Berlin’s.

“It sounds like there’s a very aggressive agenda in seeking those funds,” Ashley said. “It’s likely, if they’re successful, to lead other districts to give it a hard look.”

A combination of reduced state aid, revenue caps and school boards wary of asking voters to approve spending referendums is leading districts to seek alternative funding sources.

Ed Kealy, the executive director of the non-partisan Committee for Education Funding in Washington, D.C., said selling names of parts of public schools marks a break from a long tradition of naming schools for famous people, community pillars or geographic locales.

“It’s another innovation in the many different ways you can drum up resources when you’re bursting at the seams,” Kealy said.

Naming rights deals for public schools in the Milwaukee area have been rare. In 2004, the Elmbrook School Board proposed a contract in which the district would have swapped Swanson Elementary School for a new one built by developer Vincent Kuttemperoor, which would have been named for Kuttemperoor’s wife.

“I think they were dumb for passing it up,” Weiss said. “All they had to do was to name the school after the guy’s wife.”

The Mequon-Thiensville School District, which has its own chief fund-raiser, has considered selling naming rights to school facilities but has yet to pull the trigger on a deal.

“It’s not a matter of if it’s going to happen,” said Dennis Krause, who is officially known as Mequon-Thiensville’s community resource director. “It’s how you do it in a tasteful way that helps the district yet doesn’t over-commercialize what you’re trying to do.”
Field house name: $1 million

New Berlin Superintendent James Benfield’s list of school facility names for sale is pretty much a list of everything the district is building. The name of the new basketball field house at West High could be worth $1 million, while Benfield hopes to get in the mid-six figures for the school’s auditorium.

Each of the new Reagan school’s eight conference rooms could be had for $25,000. There’s a high school library expansion and weight room, lobbies, hallways, even classrooms themselves at Reagan.

“I’m not looking at this as selling naming rights,” Benfield said, although the district’s deal with Muskego-based InPro is called a “naming rights agreement.”

“I’m looking at it as trying to solicit donations and recognizing the donors.”

Benfield, the district’s superintendent since 1992, has become, essentially, a development director. He’s mailed solicitation letters to and sought out people in the community who can put him in touch with potential donors.

Steve Ziegler, InPro’s president and chief executive, was one of the first people Benfield solicited.

His company’s name already adorns the football stadium at Muskego High and the gymnasium at Catholic Memorial.

In 2004 Ziegler, of the Town of Oconomowoc, offered $60,000 to three Waukesha County school districts to name a school for Reagan. New Berlin accepted the donation after Ziegler dropped the naming requirement, then named its new school for Reagan anyway.
Pays for the extras

The $150,000 contribution, like any other naming rights deals, will go for improvements in the specific area being sponsored. For the InPro Commons, that means a sound system, brick tiles and a wood ceiling, Benfield said. The upgrades, for the most part, are things that were part of the original architectural renderings for the project but were removed to cut costs.

“I can’t really use public money for aesthetics,” Benfield said.

Ziegler got Benfield’s letter last month and will be writing a check for the first half of the payment by Friday. The contract calls for another $75,000 donation by March 31, 2007.

He doesn’t expect fourth-graders to rush to buy his company’s security systems or interior signage because they see its name in the hallways, but the publicity can’t hurt.

“It doesn’t help us as far as marketing goes, but it keeps our name in front of the community,” Ziegler said. “It helps the school and helps our community out.”

While the School Board can veto any donor of which it does not approve, Benfield said just about anything short of alcohol, tobacco or a political group would be welcome in his schools.

Ashley, the state school boards association director, said it will be imperative that any district selling naming rights inside its schools make it clear that accepting a financial contribution does not equal an official endorsement from school officials.

“The drawback would be the confusion between the role of public education as neutral and non-partisan and non-market-driven,” he said. “For young people, there’s always the potential to be a misunderstanding. It would be very important for the district to provide a context for the students about what the naming rights mean and don’t mean.”

Mequon’s Krause said his district would likely prefer to sell school-related naming rights to an individual rather than a corporation to avoid over-commercialization, though New Berlin’s officials have no such qualms. Weiss said he’s heard no complaints about the InPro Commons or Benfield’s effort to sell names elsewhere.

“The counterargument to that is so simple,” he said. “We’re living under the revenue caps. It’s not like we’re forcing the kids to drink Coke every day. It’s pretty innocuous.”

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