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Cash Cows or Marketing Mania

Here's a framework on how to craft a school-business partnership that benefits both parties

Have you ever read about a hot, new technologybased program, then turned sour because you knew you'd never find the money to do it? Anyway you look at it, technology costs money. But a common approach to technology funding, school-business partnerships, can sometimes be both boon and bane for district and school-based administrators. Here's why.

For the second year in a row, Maryland State Sen. Paul Pinsky has introduced a bill designed to regulate marketing and advertising in public schools. The concern that prompts his legislation is one shared by many-we must protect our kids in school from the voracious appetite of corporate America to market, market, market to this captive teen audience.

Yet school-business partnerships need not feed at the altar of teenage brand loyalty. Schools and businesses share a variety of common goals that can produce the most productive of symbiotic relationships. As a school principal who has had the good fortune of experiencing the best that corporate America has to offer in the school-business partnership arena, several lessons come to mind.


Do businesses know that partnerships are valued? In Howard County, Md., Superintendent John O'Rouke holds "partnerships" as one of three core values guiding district initiatives. Providing ground that is fertile to developing partnerships forms the background that enabled me to solicit and promote business partnerships at River Hill High School. Four corporate partners from diverse industries-Amerix Corp., Mindsurf Networks, TESST College and W R Grace-each contribute resources that enhance the technology infrastructure of our school. Each business initiated the desire to partner based on what they perceived to be a illingness to collaborate.

Too many administrators succumb to the temptation to ask for cash handouts rather than crafting a viable partnership.

Too many administrators succumb to the temptation to ask for cash handouts rather than explore commonalities that can lead to the crafting of a core vision for a living partnership. Often, it's the human resources present in local businesses that represent the most valuable resource for schools. Conversely, it's surprising the resources any local school has of value to local businesses-from athletic fields and facilities to meeting space and performing groups-that can make the relationship a true "partnership." I'd be lying, however, if I didn't share the obvious. The most attractive partnerships are those where a local business, in addition to those areas cited above, chooses to spend their dollars budgeted for community relations to assist the school in securing technology resources. But clearly, the road to ruin and missed opportunities is littered with teachers and administrators arrested as pickpockets. Each partnership is unique. All do not generate dollars for technology. Each is valuable in its own way. And remember it takes time. River Hill High School was three years old before any partnership emerged. Three years later, we are the partnership leader in our district of 64 schools.


The real work begins once the vision is set. Creating a formal structure to oversee partnership activities is critical. Regular communication ensures the most critical feature of all-trust. Trustful, interpersonal relationships between the principal (don't delegate this responsibility) and a senior manager are a must. Because money is involved, ensure that accountability is transparent. Value the perspective of your business partner, but also make it clear that you and your staff are the professional educators.

Above all, avoid marketing mania. When crafting your partnership vision, keep this in mind. Promote your partners regularly on school Web pages, banners in the school, and in newsletters. But protect your students from proprietary advertising. The money isn't worth the cost, and if you think that educators across the country are immune, think again. Sen. Pinsky didn't dream up his legislation in a vacuum. He's responding to his constituents.

The secret is not forcing the partnership equation. Be patient. Be watchful. Be wise.

R. Scott Pfeifer,, is a principal at the River Hill High School in Howard County (Md.) Public School System.