Naming Rights to Public Schools Sold in Wisconsin

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Milwaukee's school district is selling naming rights to everything in sight, from rooms and hallways, to gyms. School administrators think it will be easier to enter into marketing agreements with companies than raise more money from taxes. Marge Pitrof of member station WUWM reports on who might buy these rights, and why.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Okay, plenty of people went to schools named FDR Elementary or JFK Junior High School or MLK High School. Now, many school district officials are saying that they are willing to name the buildings after corporations. School officials say it can be easier to strike a marketing deal than to persuade citizens to pay more in taxes for schools.

Marge Pitrof reports from member station WUWM in Milwaukee.

MARGE PITROF reporting:

There were plenty of jokes making the rounds in New Berlin, Wisconsin. Will its schools soon have Preparation H bathrooms and McDonalds lunchrooms?

District Superintendent James Benfield says he'll consider most offers as long as they don't promote tobacco and alcohol. Benfield is trying to convince companies to donate money to his schools as an alternative source of funding to tax dollars.

Mr. JAMES BENFIELD (School District Superintendent, New Berlin, Wisconsin): We looked at law firms. We're looking at realtors. We haven't contacted any fast foods yet. We're actually trying to consider how that might impact on nutrition education and whether or not we want to do that.

PITROF: Benfield is asking for upwards of a half million dollars for the naming rights to facilities like the field house or performing arts center, but New Berlin has something for all budgets.

Twenty-five thousand dollars will get you a conference room, $250 dollars an auditorium seat.

Now this is going to be what?

Mr. MATT WEISS (School Board President, New Berlin, Wisconsin): Ronald Reagan Elementary. It's going to have the capacity for 750 students.

PITROF: School Board President Matt Weiss is standing in the field where a New Berlin is constructing a new elementary school. The school board urged the superintendent to solicit naming rights, following the lead of a district in Sheboygan, about an hour a way, that's raised more than a million dollars from banks and healthcare companies. Weiss says New Berlin's goal is not to ask taxpayers for additional school construction funds.

Mr. WEISS: First of all, our parents already do pay quite a lot. And the other thing to consider is that, last I heard, 75-80 percent of the population does not have children in the public school anyway. So it's very hard as a school board member to, you know, ask people to pay for, you know, new things when they don't directly benefit.

Mr. ARNOLD FEGE (Director, Public Engagement and Advocacy, Public Education Network): We think it's somewhat of a civic laziness to auction off a part of their public school.

PITROF: Arnold Fege is with the Public Education Network, which deals with public school funding.

Mr. FEGE: It's the responsibility of the superintendent and the school board to convince the community that their public schools are worthy of tax increases.

PITROF: In Wisconsin, spending caps limit money for public schools. If they want to spend more, they have to ask voters for permission. Sometimes school officials ask for only a portion of the money needed in order to make the request to taxpayers more palatable.

Fege says naming rights are just a short-term solution, because they're usually one-time donations. And he's concerned about fallout if the sponsoring company does something controversial. Think of Houston's Enron Field.

That's why the Wisconsin Association of School Boards urges school districts to develop naming rights policies and solicit community input. That did not happen in New Berlin. Parent Chip Nickolett and his children are walking to the high school graduation ceremony at the still unnamed football stadium. He says naming rights are okay with him.

Mr. CHIP NICKOLETT (Parent, New Berlin, Wisconsin): I don't think it's necessarily bad if it helps improve the school system, as long as it's reasonable.

PITROF: Nickolett has three young children set to attend Reagan Elementary when it opens in the fall. Its commons area will be named after a local manufacturer that donated $150,000 for the rights.

For NPR News, I'm Marge Pitrof.

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