A school district in suburban Detroit has decided to sell naming rights to its buildings-including a new elementary school-as a way to offset the one-two punch of rising education costs and decreasing public funds. The Plymouth-Canton school board voted unanimously June 28 to consider commercial naming opportunities for everything from the new school to athletic fields to events such as the prom.
It's not exactly a first: A school district in New Jersey sold the naming rights to its high school gymnasium to a local Shop-Rite, while the Grapevine-Colleyville school district in Texas has offered advertising space on school buses, sporting venues and a middle-school roof.
Sponsorship experts say it's hard to pin down a number for naming rights to a school because of the many variables-size of district and wealth of community, for example-but officials in Plymouth-Canton said that if they pursued a sponsor they'd seek a 51% investment, meaning a marketer would probably have to pony up $7.5 million of the $15 million cost of building the new elementary school.
But replacing George Washington Junior High or Martin Luther King Magnet School with Fed-Ex Elementary or Nike Public School is taking the trend to a new-and to some, troubling-stage.
"What this issue is, first of all, is the way we have abandoned public space and the notion of the public good," said psychologist Susan Linn, co-founder of the Boston-based Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood. "People don't see the cost, and the cost is our values and the values we are passing onto children."
Marketers tended to agree, feeling that stamping their brand on a school might be a step too far. Others said they would give it serious thought, given it seemed a worthwhile cause as well as a good branding opportunity.
From the secondary level to the university level there has been a sense that commercialization-already common on the athletic field, where even pizza magnate Papa John has an eponymous football stadium at the University of Louisville, for instance-is creeping into the classroom.
In Philadelphia, Temple University is considering selling naming rights to its new $150 million medical school and research facility. The idea, backed by some, including the medical school dean, has drawn outrage from others who see a clear difference between naming schools and buildings after donations from influential alumni, philanthropists and foundations, and selling naming rights to marketers.
"Are we going from Mount Sinai to Mountain Dew?" said Arthur Caplan, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Bioethics. "We normally think of health care education as something that should be free from commercial interest and aggressive marketing."
Temple is only considering the idea. But Temple will also receive $50 million from the state, $20 million from its own funds and up to $30 million in fund-raising efforts, meaning about two-thirds of the cost is probably already covered. Plymouth-Canton's school district doesn't have that same luxury, hence the adoption of the policy to consider selling naming rights. School board president Mark Slavens said the district has no choice when the state of Michigan "breaks their promise to provide adequate funding for schools."
In all likelihood, if Plymouth-Canton does pursue the idea, board members said they would try to find a happy medium by doing what some sporting events have done in using hyphenated names or presenting sponsors, i.e. "Abraham Lincoln School, presented by Cingular." Such a compromise, however, would hardly thrill critics.
School administrators say a naming rights deal would not only help with the cost of the building and maintaining a school, but with key extracurricular programs that often go by the wayside because of budget cuts. Still, Ms. Linn said, once you start down that path, it's difficult to turn back.
"I think that schools are in a terrible bind, but what we need to be lobbying for is public money for public education," she said. "The more that we turn to corporations, the more it compromises children's education and tells people we don't need public money for public education."