Eating away at Blair's financial shortcomings

Dec. 15, 2005, midnight | By Ravi Umarji | 15 years, 1 month ago

Restaurant within school's walls would be a viable solution to ongoing cash shortage

When the new Blair building first opened in 1998, ridiculous rumors about the high school flew around the county. It was the biggest high school in the U.S. It had a swimming pool. And a McDonald's was stationed right inside the school.

That last one might seem like the most far-fetched, but product placement is rampant in public schools: The vending machines plastered with "Pepsi" and the Boardwalk fries that the cafeteria sells are just two examples.

The school's contract with Pepsi funded the purchase of the new digital security system over the summer, which was responsible for the apprehension of last fall's notorious graffiti vandals. However, if Blair loses the Pepsi contract that expires in 2007, which is probable due to a sharp decline in sales, necessities such as textbooks and new computers would be without a source of funding. Allowing restaurants to operate in Blair would provide income for such projects - money the school desperately needs.

Money is power

When schools don't receive enough money from the county, they have three options: petitioning the county to raise taxes, soliciting parent donations or resorting to commercial advertising. Raising taxes can't significantly increase the amount of money schools get because Montgomery County already spends almost 50 percent of its operating budget on schools; any additional money a realistic tax increase would generate would be insignificant compared to the amount the County is already spending on education.

In affluent areas, parent donations can bridge the gap between what schools are getting and what they need. According to the Public School Review, Churchill's zip code has a median income over twice that of Blair's. This enormous disparity in incomes results in a staggering difference in the amount of money each school's PTSA receives from membership dues and donations. The Churchill PTSA has received $35,000 in membership dues alone this year, while the Blair PTSA has accumulated just over $10,000 from membership fees and independent donations combined.

With nearly four times as much money, Churchill's PTSA is able to fund resources that Blair's can't even dream of buying. According to Churchill PTSA President Robyn Solomon, the money her organization has received this year is being spent on expensive liquid crystal display computer monitors and TI-83 projectors. Blair, on the other hand, is struggling with the basics: Much of Blair's PTSA money that isn't distributed through mini-grants is being spent on translation equipment and on building a water fountain, according to Sonya Mallinoff, the Blair PTSA treasurer.

So, since taxes won't create enough money and parents can't afford to donate, schools like Blair have a third and final option: commercial advertising. While all schools employ some advertising through vending machines, Blair needs more drastic methods because all other sources of income have proved to be insufficient. To gain significant increases in income, Blair could enter into contract deals with restaurants like those with Pepsi, in which profits are shared between the school and the company.

If the throngs of students that flock to McDonald's and Starbucks after school are any indication, opening a restaurant inside of Blair would be a lucrative investment. Just as the vending machine profits allowed Blair to purchase security equipment and updated textbooks, putting a restaurant in the school would finally give Blair the money it needs to foster a safe and enriching learning environment.

Chewing the fat

It's clear that having a restaurant in a school makes good financial and practical sense, but legally, the Board of Education's nutritional policy, which attempts to ensure that foods sold in schools are healthy, remains a major obstacle. Such regulations, established in March 2004, would no doubt extend to any food a restaurant serves in school. However, there are viable and healthy restaurants that could be placed in Blair.

Consider Chicken Out, which has 31 entrees and side orders with fewer than 4.5 grams of saturated fat. While the MCPS nutritional policy mandates that every snack sold from vending machines has fewer than two grams of saturated fat, this number must be examined in proportion to the size of the meal. A snack is significantly smaller than a sandwich or chicken breast. It follows that while the full meal will have more saturated fat, it will also be loaded with other nutrients as well, giving the food a high health value. Chicken Out is by no means the only restaurant healthy option; Subway also has a variety of choices that meet the Board's requirements.

The corporate reality

Still, opponents of in-school restaurants choose to ignore the potential funding for education, claiming that excessive advertising would hurt the school's atmosphere. "Schools are traditionally thought of as open, free-thinking environments," Media in Society teacher Paul Irvin argues. "When you open to sell, you're taking away free thought and choice. Most people don't have a problem with that because they're so brainwashed by culture and society."

In a perfect world, Blair could avoid advertising completely, but this is simply unrealistic. Advertising is everywhere, from the computers with Apple and Dell logos to pens and pencils with "Bic" on the sides. The advertising that allows Blair to make vital purchases, while much more obvious, is also much more useful. To sacrifice such basic necessities as security cameras and textbooks for the sake of abstract and practically insignificant principles is sheer stubbornness.

Considering how the profits from vending machines paid dividends almost immediately with the capture of the graffiti vandals and the possibility that those profits may dry up within two years, it's clear that the need for a new source of income is critical. To function more smoothly and safely, Blair must invest in in-school restaurants.

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