Retailers imprinting their brands on public school districts

At San Juan Unified campuses, students take home back-to-school supply lists emblazoned with the Target logo and a web address for the retailer’s ordering site. Natomas Unified displays ads on its website directing families to shoe stores and clothing retailers.

And a week before Folsom Cordova Unified schools started Thursday, the district posted on its Twitter account, “Getting school supplies? @Target has discounts 4 our families!”

In exchange for relatively small amounts of money, school districts have agreed to give national retailers entree to parents and students, particularly kindergartners through eighth-graders. Companies searching for new ways to reach prospective customers have found willing partners in public school districts that faced deep budget cuts during the recession.

About three years ago, the for-profit Education Funding Partners inked one of its first retail sponsorship deals with San Juan Unified in suburban Sacramento County. Since then, Denver-based EFP has signed up three more Sacramento area school districts – and expanded the reach of national retailers to school-age children.

Sacramento City Unified will receive about $14,000 for distributing its school supply lists on paper with the Target logo and directing families to an online Target ordering website.

“We’re promoting Target as an option for a family to purchase their school supplies and make it easier for parents,” said spokesman Gabe Ross. “Target is paying the districts for that.”

Folsom Cordova has agreed to cite Target in parent newsletters, back-to-school lists of suggested school supplies, as well as on Twitter and Facebook.

This year, Folsom Cordova will receive about $4,800 for the Target sponsorship, while EFP will collect a $2,600 fee. EFP CEO Mickey Freeman expressed pride, saying that his company brings benefits to schools.

“We’re mission driven to try to use the power of business to do social good,” Freeman said.

Over a three-year period, he said, sponsorships have generated close to $100,000 for education in Sacramento County. About 150 districts participate nationally.

But the sponsorships generate small amounts in Sacramento. San Juan will get about $12,600 through its Target deal, a fraction of its $355 million budget this year and barely more than the state pays districts to educate one student annually.

Natomas Unified will receive $3,300 for its Target agreement. In exchange for creating a prominent paid advertisement space on its website, the district also expects a small amount of money from clicks on a range of Google-generated ads, including shoes, clothing, universities and restaurants. District spokesman Jim Sanders said Natomas Unified received $157 in click revenues from April 2012 to July 2014.

Consumer advocates at Public Citizen acknowledge cringing at the level of marketing being directed at public school students.

“They are selling the access to their kids and doing the marketing work for a gigantic corporation,” said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, which runs Commercial Alert, a project that focuses on excessive commercialism in society.

“Making it worse, they’re doing it for virtually no pay,” he added, calling the revenues trivial compared with districts’ funding needs.

Weissman acknowledged that districts “face real and significant financial stress ... so it’s understandable why they’re looking for creative and innovative funding streams.”

But, he said, companies receive tremendous marketing value for “being blessed effectively as an official supplier for the school district. More important for Target is becoming ensconced in the community and being seen as supportive and helpful for the community, which is very significant,” he said.

EFP’s Freeman is not swayed by that perspective, saying districts can reject any sponsorship or ad and can decide where logos go.

“The fact that we’re ... doing this right and we’re completely transparent means there are no surprises,” Freeman said. “One out of 10 people are going to complain about anything.”

In a Target store on Bruceville Road in south Sacramento, parents and teachers shopping for school supplies weren’t troubled by the arrangements.

Jennifer Poole scanned the back-to-school aisle for her daughters Summer and Baylee, ages 5 and 8.

“In this day and age, I think the way the schools are with funding, if you know you’re going to get a little (money) back,” that’s a good thing, said Poole.

Her daughters attend Pleasant Grove Elementary, part of Elk Grove Unified, which does not participate in a marketing arrangement. District spokeswoman Elizabeth Graswich said parents won’t see advertising on the district’s website anytime soon.

“It has been our interest to maintain our school websites as tools to share information related to schools, education and the district rather than turning them into advertising vehicles,” she wrote in an email.

Officials for participating districts say they put the money to good use. Natomas turns it over to the nonprofit Natomas Schools Foundation, which provides scholarships, refurbishes donated computers for students who need Internet access at home and supports the arts, athletics and academic needs, Sanders said.

San Juan held a special science camp during a school break at the Discovery Science Center in February 2012. The next year, the district used the funds to support senior class activities at Encina and San Juan high schools, said spokesman Trent Allen.

Several officials, including Folsom Cordova spokesman Daniel Thigpen, said the districts are cautious about where and how to place logos or ads. For instance, he said teacher web pages that students use to find assignments and class details, cannot have advertisements.

“It can’t interfere with educating students,” Thigpen said.

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