January 25th, 2009

St. Louis School Districts Grapple with the Ethics of Naming Rights

By Valerie Schremp Hahn
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

For the price of a memorial plaque and the notoriety that comes with it, school districts in the St. Louis region are selling naming rights to classroom buildings or prep sports stadiums.

Hospitals, professional stadiums and universities have put a price tag on facility names for years.

The difference is that school district facilities serve influential young minds, forcing officials to ponder nagging ethical questions as they solicit donations.

So would a school district accept a check from Big Beer Conglomerate for building the Refreshing, Beechwood-Aged Cafeteria? Probably not.

But school districts still worry that they need to lay out guidelines so they’re not caught unprepared for potentially inappropriate naming requests.

Those concerns have, in part, prompted at least seven area school districts to pass or revise policies in the past year that define the limits and specifics of naming rights.

“We’re all at the point where this is something you’ll have to deal with,” said Mary Jane Driscoll, in charge of development and alumni relations for the Lindbergh School District. “When somebody’s standing there with the check, you don’t want to be standing there going, ‘Uh, duh, uh...’”

Many St. Louis districts changed their rules under the guidance of the Missouri School Boards Association, including some districts that don’t have immediate plans to solicit donations but want to be ready if the time comes.

The policies generally include wording to say that the company’s purpose must be “consistent with the educational mission of the district.”

But what if a fast food company approaches with a check? The district is likely to have a wellness policy that encourages students to eat healthy. What then?

“It is a temptation, but I really think you have to stand firm about what our vision for the district would be,” said Donette Green, an assistant superintendent at Pattonville School District, which revised its facilities policy in November. “We would have to maintain our integrity. It all boils down to, ‘What are you teaching the students?’”

Pattonville revised its policy in response to the incorporation of a new booster group, the Pattonville Athletics and Activities Foundation.

The group wanted to know the district’s stance on naming rights before approaching businesses for money. Green and Mark Baker, head of the foundation, said raising money through naming rights ensured that district money could go toward essential academic costs.

“We just don’t want to do a big bond issue and say they’re going to build a swimming pool or something like that,” said Baker. “It probably wouldn’t pass.”

The Kirkwood School District sold naming rights to classrooms and wings in its new science building, which opened in 2007. Naming a classroom cost $100,000 and a wing $250,000. It had takers on two classrooms and two wings, one of which school leaders plan to dedicate within a couple weeks. The building itself honors Earl and Myrtle Walker, alums and huge financial supporters of the district, who contributed $800,000 to the building.

But naming school facilities after people who are still living raises its own ethical questions. Do you name a school after a living person, who could perhaps disparage his or her own name and, in turn, the district’s?

St. Louis Public Schools won’t name a school after anyone alive. In Rockwood, the board will consider it. In Mehlville, it’s possible, but no school or building is to be named for current employees or board members. In Ferguson-Florissant, no such restrictions apply.

In 2006, the Clayton School District drew up a seven-page naming rights agreement with Centene Corp. after Centene donated $400,000 toward the renovation of the new stadium. Basically, it says both parties can drop out of the name deal, especially if Centene shuts down in Clayton or if one party does something that would sully the reputation of the other. Pattonville’s policy, which they modeled after university naming rights policies, is similar.

Webster Groves School District revised its policy a few months ago, though it doesn’t have immediate plans to sell naming rights. For years, community and School Board members have asked the district to look into new ways to raise money, because about 90 percent of its budget comes from taxpayers. “At least it’s money we don’t have to ask taxpayers for,” said Superintendent Brent Underwood.

Bayless School District adopted a naming rights policy several months ago, partly in preparation for the district’s 140th anniversary, which it is celebrating this year. Administrators don’t have immediate naming rights plans, said Superintendent Maureen Clancy-May, but they want to be prepared.

“No wealthy alumni have appeared yet at our doorstep. But if you know anybody, just send them,” she said, laughing.

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