What did the bright red Coca-Cola sign over the front door of Miami Killian Senior High School mean? To a local bottler, it meant payback for donations. To the principal, it meant a nod to Coke's support for education. And to some parents, it meant a sellout of their children.
"It's okay to give credit where credit is due, but a logo over the entrance makes the school look like a billboard," says Lucy Margolis, a school board activist and parent of a Killian student.
Margolis and other parents won out. On April 28 school administrators decreed that the sign be removed. Other aspects of Coke's ten-month-old deal with Killian -- including furniture for principal Timothy Dawson's personal conference room -- remain, as do similar pacts with schools throughout the area.
Soft-drink companies have inked agreements with schools for decades. But in recent years advertising has moved beyond the vending machine and football scoreboard. School districts across the nation have signed multimillion-dollar contracts with soda companies to promote their products on campus. From Denver (Pepsi, $2 million), to central Texas (Dr. Pepper, $4 million) to upstate New York (Coke, $1.35 million), school boards are cashing in. These deals generate money for the districts, company access to young customers, and heated debate about the commercializing of education.
In Dade County local bottlers for both Coca-Cola and Pepsi have made deals with several schools. How many? Deputy superintendent and district spokesman Henry Fraind doesn't know. Alex Bromir, chief of the district's Bureau of Community Service, said the bottlers and about 3000 other companies participate in Dade Partners, the schools' program for private donations. Principals negotiate their own "partnerships," Bromir says. "It would take days and days of research" to pinpoint the exact contribution of one partner, or to give a total value for the program, he adds.
Poke around a little and you find that Palmetto, Coral Reef, and South Dade senior highs have exclusive deals with Coke. Principals at those schools acknowledge that those agreements are worth thousands of dollars.
Charitable donations are one thing, exclusive beverage deals are another, declares Pat Tornillo, head of the United Teachers of Dade. "I just don't think education is a proper forum for advertising," Tornillo says. "We're not in the business of delivering a captive audience to one company or another."
At Killian, principal Dawson struck just such a bargain with the Florida Coca-Cola Bottling Company soon after his arrival at the school in July 1997. (That wasn't his only contentious move. Three months ago the principal severely disciplined nine students for publishing a profane pamphlet that criticized his administration. Even Dawson now refers to the students as the "Killian Nine.")
Under the agreement, Coca-Cola got "pouring rights at Miami Killian Senior High School," making the company the exclusive provider of beverages (carbonated, noncarbonated, juices, punches, and teas) everywhere on campus except the cafeteria. Paper cups would bear Coca-Cola's name. And as an added bonus, the company was given the right to display its logo -- about the size of a trash-can cover -- over the front entrance.
In return, Killian received, and will continue to receive, a yearly package worth $19,000: 40 cases of Coca-Cola products, books of coupons for local businesses, plaques for student and teacher awards, and some educational materials and software. The school also acquired $12,000 worth of furniture for a conference room connected to Dawson's office, including a large table, chairs, and a cabinet.
Dawson sent Florida Coca-Cola a brief thank-you note for the furniture on October 27. Florida Coca-Cola took its time putting up the logo, Dawson says. When workers from Coca-Cola arrived in early February to install it, "I had forgotten about the darn thing," Dawson says with a laugh.
Lucy Margolis wasn't laughing when she spotted it, especially since the largest single benefit to the school from that agreement graces the principal's conference room.
"It's important to have public/private partnerships," Margolis allows. "But when money comes in, I believe it has to help teachers teach and students learn. I think it's inappropriate for a principal to receive office furniture in return for product recognition."
Dawson believes his critics are missing the point. Regarding the conference room furniture, he states: "It saved the school $12,000 that I didn't have to spend on furniture." As for the logo, Dawson says, no board rules prohibited it.
Coca-Cola logos can be spotted on school property at numerous campuses -- freestanding signs at Palmetto and Coral Reef and a baseball scoreboard at South Dade, to name a few. Dawson reasoned that if those things were acceptable, so was the logo over his front door.
Coral Reef has relationships with more than 100 local businesses through Dade Partners, says principal Greg Zawyer. Coca-Cola donated a sign worth $7000. In exchange, school vending machines dispense only Coke products. At South Dade, a Coke-emblazoned scoreboard is worth "no more than $10,000", says principal Donald Hoecherl. Through next year, Coca-Cola will be the only cola available at the school.
Zawyer contends that he would never have allowed a logo on the school building. "I wouldn't want an advertisement on the school," he asserts.
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School board member Betsy Kaplan recalls a time when corporate imagery wasn't found on school campuses, but acknowledges the new reality. "It seems, unfortunately, to be a fact of life that we need [corporate] money," she sighs. "As long as the company is not deceiving or hurting anyone, I guess we have to give with the times."
The difference between a logo on the school building and a freestanding sign is debatable. Yet school administrators seem willing to split that hair. Last month the district told Dawson to remove the Coke insignia. The Killian principal had also considered putting up a BellSouth logo should that telecommunications company place a planned cellular phone antenna at the school. (The school board has yet to vote on the tower.)
The Coca-Cola logo is gone for good from Killian. Such things will no longer be allowed in the district, Fraind says: "We just felt that this may be too obtrusive. We informed the principals about three weeks ago to remove any advertising logos affixed to the structures of the school."
Principal Dawson says he discussed the decision to remove the sign with Florida Coca-Cola, and they've been understanding. The furniture stays.