Budget & Finance

Cash-Strapped Oregon Schools Get Help From Businesses

By Rhea R. Borja — November 19, 2003 5 min read
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Whether it’s buying Honeycrisp organic apples, hardback books, a candle-lit dinner, or even a new Chevrolet, Oregonians are finding new ways to subsidize their cash-strapped schools.

That’s because an increasing number of local businesses, concerned about education funding problems and the state’s languishing economy, are holding school donation drives and offering customer incentives to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for schools.

The 16-branch Ron Tonkin car dealership, for example, is donating $25 for every new or used car sold between Labor Day and Thanksgiving to 32 public school foundations. The “Drive for Schools” program is well on its way to its $100,000 goal, said Brad E. Tonkin, a vice president of the Portland-based dealership.

Mt. Hood Organic Farms’ “School Aid” foundation, partnering with some regional organic markets, is donating 50 cents of the cost of every pound of fruit to local schools. The program has raised $100,000, said John Jacobson, a farmer and the owner of Mt. Hood Organic Farms, a 50-acre family-owned farm in Hood River.

In “Dining For Districts,” a school fund-raiser sponsored by Portland radio station KINK-FM and the Spokane, Wash.-based Sterling Savings Bank, diners at some restaurants on the first Tuesday of each month can donate 10 percent of their total checks to a school district of their choice. Over the past year, the promotion has garnered $22,000 for schools.

And a weeklong “cut-a-thon” last month by the 40 Portland-area Great Clips hair salons, whose corporate headquarters are in Minneapolis, raised close to $22,000 for local schools.

Those are just some examples of the involvement of local and regional business leaders, said Cynthia Guyer, the executive director of the Portland Schools Foundation, one of the major beneficiaries of the businesses’ philanthropic initiatives.

“People got to talking and they said, ‘What can we do to make a significant dent [in school funding],’” she said. “This is homegrown, local people running businesses, [who are] tied in to the community.”

‘Customers Love It’

Oregon needs the support. The state’s continuing economic recession and opposition to new tax measures, among other reasons, caused more than 100 Oregon districts to shave the length of their school years last spring because of budget crunches. Many districts also cut sports programs, extracurricular activities, and laid off teachers and other school employees. (“Oregon Rejects Tax Hike That Would Have Helped Schools,” Feb. 5, 2003.)

Educators felt optimistic when Gov. Theodore R. Kulongoski, a Democrat, recently approved a 13 percent increase in school funding for the 2004-05 biennium, partly through tax increases. But opponents, who include some business owners in the state, are seeking to repeal the tax increases in a Feb. 3 special election.

Kristine Kaine, the president of the Oregon Education Association, welcomes businesses’ increased involvement, but she says state legislators should take the responsibility for school funding and reform an inadequate tax system.

“It’s a nice and needed gesture, but businesses shouldn’t have to [subsidize schools],” she said. “We should have adequately funded schools. Hopefully, this can be a call to legislators and also citizens in the state that they need to invest in schools.”

For local business leaders such as Mr. Tonkin, the car dealer, helping to raise money for schools is an easy choice.

“We were born and raised in this community,” he said. “Our business is here in Oregon, and of our 800 employees, many of them have kids in the school system. The people here need to give back to the community. So we’re trying to do what we can.”

Customers have enthusiastically signed onto the school fund-raisers, Oregon business owners said.

That’s the case for Powell’s Books, a Portland institution with seven branches in the city that has raised close to $600,000 since 1994 for local school libraries. Every November, customers who say “It’s for kids” when buying books donate 10 percent of those sales to the Portland and Beaverton school districts.

“Customers and librarians love it,” said Steven Fidel, a spokesman for the bookstore. “They come into the store over the weekends and talk to other customers about the program.”

Brian Rohnert, the president of Portland-based New Seasons Market, a natural-foods grocery store with four branches in greater Portland, has seen similar enthusiasm from his customers.

The grocery chain, along with partners Fred Meyer Stores and Mt. Hood Organic Farms, raised $56,000 last year selling fruit such as Gala apples and D’Anjou pears. The money went to the Portland and Hillsboro school foundations as well as Oregon Mentors, a Portland- based nonprofit group that connects adult mentors to students.

Buying a certain kind of apple or other fruit designated to raise money for schools was a “no-brainer” for customers, Mr. Rohnert said.

“Portland is in a funding crisis,” he said. “So the customers were thrilled at being able to help [stop] that funding shortfall by simply choosing to buy apples.”

Jeff Hanna, an advertising media director whose clients include Sterling Savings Bank, said that the business-sponsored school funding drives support both schools and the businesses involved.

“People buy Northwest for Northwest,” he said. “The people that are supporting [the businesses, the businesses get to support them back.”

Grassroots Effort

Tuesday nights are traditionally slow for restaurants, a number of which have shut their doors permanently in Portland because of the sluggish economy. The state’s 8 percent unemployment rate is the highest nationwide.

It made sense for restaurants to offer an incentive for customers to dine out, said Cheri Roberts, an account executive at KINK-FM. So she started the Dining For Districts school drive.

“Moving the economy was my whole motto,” she said. “Help them find a way to market their business and give back [to the community] at the same time. They’re getting a lot of exposure, and the schools are making money.”

Mr. Jacobson of Mt. Hood Organic Farms sees business-sponsored school funding programs as a way to build not just better relationships between the customer and a business, but also stronger bonds within the community.

His School Aid foundation partners with regional companies Wild Oats Markets Inc., Rosauers Supermarkets, Whole Foods Market, and People’s Food Cooperative. The money raised goes directly to teachers and schools that request funding, such as a Portland high school teacher who holds an after-school “homework club.”

“It’s like the modern- day equivalent of a barn-building,” Mr. Jacobson said from his farm near the border between Oregon and Washington state. “It’s a grassroots community effort.”

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