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Hillsborough schools draw line between rewards, ads
A panel makes sure that rewards for students come with no strings.
By LETITIA STEIN, Times Staff Writer
Published December 25, 2007
TAMPA - Rummi looks innocent enough in the brochure submitted to Hillsborough schools to pitch a reward program for students.
The booklet features facts from his Internet-based TV show, where the fuzzy blue and yellow parrot promotes the environment and animals. Sample coupons include a free McDonald's Happy Meal. The fine print notes, "Dine-in only."
Alas for Rummi, that's the kiss of death -at least where gaining access to Hillsborough classrooms is concerned. Other concerns about the proposal sealed his fate.
"We're advertising a show on the Internet for them," says Tammy Cummings, president of the Hillsborough County Council PTA/PTSA, who serves on a little-known panel charged with vetting such promotions.
A long list of no-no's stands between Hillsborough's 193,000 public school students and the businesses, individuals and organizations drooling over an attractive captive market. The enforcers sit on a panel called the District Review Committee.
Each month, it screens a varied mix of 15 to 30 proposals. Along with Rummi, this month's array included track club coaching, a coffee sale fundraiser and a introductory gym offer through a local Kiwanis club.
A set of guidelines steers decisions. When the prize is access to the students who make up the nation's eighth-largest school district, good intentions simply aren't enough.
"It's a consistent way to be able to approve initiatives," said Velia Pedrero, the school administrator who oversees the review committee. "I perceive it as providing a service to schools and the community."
The first rule may seem obvious, but many proposals fail to meet it: There can't be a cost to participate.
That includes a cost to parents. A coupon to an attraction where the child gets in free for the price of an adult admission isn't really a freebie. Ditto for restaurants offering free food only when a family dines inside. In these cases, the district requires a takeout option.
"It's an indirect cost, but it is a cost," Pedrero explains. "If the intent is to acknowledge the child's efforts, I would think that the establishment doesn't want to deny that child."
School officials also look to see whether the program serves educational priorities. It can't consume the time of school administrators, or distract students from learning.
When fundraisers are involved, the district expects a significant portion of the money raised to be returned to the school.
Consider the discussion at the committee's monthly meeting in December.
A restaurant in the North Tampa area wanted to distribute information about a Tuesday night special, where kids get a free entree with every paid adult meal.
"What's the school getting?" asked panel member Pansy Houghton, who supervises the district's school choice program. "They can do this in the newspaper."
"It's complete advertising," Pedrero concurred.
The proposal was denied after less than two minutes of discussion.
The only pitch approved at this meeting came from Crispers restaurants. It included a fundraiser offering schools $3 back on sales of a $10 gift card.
Several other concepts are pending, as more information was requested. A safety door stop and other proposals not directly related to student participation were referred to other departments within the district.
The committee doesn't see every Chick-fil-A coupon that reaches a campus. At individual schools, principals and parents are free to reach out to local businesses directly and bring in their own proposals.
Pitches that aren't approved for mass distribution still can find a home. Each school has a community resource handbook, where groups can place information about services ranging from child care to dance lessons.
But first, they have to go to the review committee.
"Denial of a proposal doesn't in any way reflect on the group or proposal," Pedrero said. "They're well intended. We want to be supportive."
Letitia Stein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 813 226-3400. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.