First, Dr Pepper advertised on the roof of an elementary school, which made money for the Texas district. Now, school officials have expanded summer school to a full day of supervised activities—a la children’s day camps—to increase revenue from courses like “Busy with Bells” and “Scientific Method with Hamsters.”
District leaders are even looking to hire a full-time sales and marketing professional to help boost the school system’s income.
And they aren’t planning to stop there.
Like so many other public school districts across the country, the 13,700-student Grapevine-Colleyville system near Dallas is trying to make up a substantial budget shortfall: an estimated $5 million gap in its $83 million spending plan for the upcoming 2004 fiscal year.
Unlike many other districts, though, Grapevine-Colleyville is trying to market its substantial assets to raise money—a move some hail as enterprising and others contend will distract the district from its mission of educating children.
“That is the fine line we’re walking,” acknowledged John Allison, Grapevine- Colleyville’s deputy superintendent of educational services.
In trying to fill their budget gap, administrators are saying, “‘Let’s look at what we do well, what we can manage to do, and see if there is a revenue stream or a way to share services [with other districts] that can help us do that,’” Mr. Allison said.
Although it is not unusual for school districts to operate their own before- and after-school-care services, or to provide services to other districts or city governments, Grapevine-Colleyville is taking its moonlighting ventures to new heights.
“This probably goes further than most” summer school programs in Texas, said Joseph Wisnoski, the coordinator for school finance and fiscal analysis at the Texas Education Agency.
Also under consideration are such plans as using the district’s printing equipment—and the employees who operate it—to do work for the city of Grapevine; producing video productions for other districts with Grapevine-Colleyville equipment and staff members; and turning the athletic field house into a community arts center and offering art lessons.
Other districts have taken similar paths to increase revenue, but “it may be unique in that [Grapevine-Colleyville is] going in so many directions at once,” said Joseph Villani, the deputy executive director of the National School Boards Association.
“It takes a little break-the-mold thinking, but it is delightful to see,” he added.
Eluding Robin Hood?
Embracing cutting-edge—and controversial—tactics to generate revenue is not a foreign concept in the Texas district.
In 1997, when other school systems were wrangling with the issue of selling ad space to raise money, Grapevine-Colleyville signed a 10- year, multimillion dollar contract with Dr Pepper/Seven Up Inc. for space on the roof of one of its elementary schools located in the flight path of the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. (“From Walls to Roofs, Schools Sell Ad Space,” June 4, 1997.)
In large part, the Texas school finance system galvanized the district’s entrepreneurship. Under the court-ordered system—dubbed “Robin Hood"—districts with high property values must share some of their property- tax revenue with less wealthy ones.
But any money districts can bring in through sources other than property taxes is not subject to that “recapture” provision.
Already the Grapevine-Colleyville district has opted not to renew its contract with the Golden, Colo.-based company Aramark Educational Resources Inc., which operated its before- and after-school child care.
Instead, that program will be directed by Kathy Papathopoulos, a newly hired district employee.
That decision “flat out came down as an economic issue,” said Deputy Superintendent Allison. He estimates that two years from now, after the program is well-established, the district will be able to generate $1 million in revenue per year from child care alone.
Because Aramark did not provide extended-day care during the summer, many elementary pupils with working parents who needed someone to watch their children for longer hours could not take part in the district’s Explore and Discover summer school program, according to district officials.
That will change this summer, said Ms. Papathopoulos, when the district plans to offer care that starts as early as 7 a.m. and ends at 6 p.m. “We are trying to be a child-care choice for parents in the summers,” she said.
To make the program more appealing, the elementary summer offerings have been expanded to include more courses that cover academic subjects, cooking, arts and crafts, and social skills.
Families will be charged $75 for each three-hour summer course— which are taught by certified teachers and assistants—and $30 a week for extended-day care. The weeklong courses meet either in the morning from 8:30 to 11:30, or from noon until 3 p.m.
The district-operated before and after care is “a good entrepreneurial venture,” said Mr. Villani of the NSBA.
To increase its revenue further, the district has leased empty parking spaces in its stadium lot to a nearby business that shuttles its employees. Administrators are also awaiting school board approval to manage food services and transportation for the adjacent 7,500-student Carroll Independent School District.
Also in the works is a plan to sell the district’s technological expertise. The city of Colleyville intends to wire new municipal buildings to an Internet network. Instead of hiring an outside firm, city officials are contemplating drafting a contract with the school district to connect the city’s computers to the existing network located at nearby schools. District employees would maintain the technology.
“We are already doing that [kind of work], so it won’t impact what we deliver and the services we provide,” Mr. Allison said. “And it will offset some of our technology costs.”
He estimated that the district would charge $20,000 to $30,000 a year for the service, and would have to convert a part-time staff position into a full-time one to accommodate the extra work.
Observers are torn over the strategies the district is using to raise money.
Alex Wohl, a spokesman for the American Federation of Teachers, believes that utilizing the district’s facilities in a way that brings the community and the schools closer together makes perfect sense.
Grapevine-Colleyville’s plans “further efficient spending and purchasing” and “further a community of efficiency between the public and private sector,” he said.
But there is definitely a line between advancing a district’s educational mission and getting into general commercial activity, Mr. Wohl said.
“Unfortunately,” he said, “tough economic times like this call for unusual measures, so the gray area grows a little bigger.”
Grapevine- Colleyville’s plans are raising eyebrows elsewhere.
“Where does that end?” asked Mr. Wisnoski, of the state’s school finance department. Should the district use its bus garages “on nights and weekends to do oil changes for citizens and go into competition with local garages?”
Those are interesting questions, Mr. Wisnoski said, but added that his agency would not be the one answering them.
The view of Paul E. Peterson, the director of the program on education policy and governance at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, however, was unequivocal: The district is using tax dollars to subsidize operations that amount to private industry.
That, he argued, leads to “unfair competition.”
Mr. Allison, though, maintains that the district has no desire “to go into competition with the folks who are providing [our] support.”
“We have a partnership with our community, and we don’t want to jeopardize that,” the deputy superintendent said.
What’s more, he believes more districts may enter that “gray space” if schools’ financial woes are not remedied. “I think that districts are going to have to look at the way they approach their budgets and look at opportunities for revenue,” Mr. Allison said.
As for Grapevine-Colleyville, he said, “we are not going to go down without a good fight.”