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Education Matters: The littlest salespeople

One of the benefits of having our children and their friends get older is being spared the pressure to contribute to their schools by buying unwanted (and always unread) magazines, candy or cookies, useless gift items or overpriced wrapping paper.

Although thankfully this dubious child labor practice is losing popularity, one local school, Carmel Valley Middle School in the San Dieguito Union High School District, continues to engage in this fundraising scheme that encourages children to work as unpaid sales reps.

It’s a tactic that some parents say crosses the line into a system of favoritism for students who participate and shame for those who don’t.

At CVMS, it’s magazine subscriptions. With the same fundraiser each year for more than 10 years now, traditions die hard.

From the CVMS website: “We will be asking each student to join with us in a voluntary quota of EIGHT (8) sales by the end of our fall fundraising campaign. If each student does their part, we will be able to supply your children with the fun activities and educational programs that make our school great.”

There’s more: “Consider giving magazine subscriptions as gifts this year! Purchase subscriptions for the school! Renew your subscriptions through our drive! Let friends and relatives know about our fundraiser. Ask them to save their orders for our program as well! Thank you, in advance, for your support. We count on your participation!”

Some parents say the school pressures kids to hawk this stuff to friends and relatives by offering “incentives” — prizes, gifts, after-school parties, cut-in-line passes for food service, and opt-outs for the mile run in physical education — to boost participation.

Said one parent: “I’ve objected ever since preschool to using kids as unpaid salespeople for for-profit companies, with only a fraction going to the school, and the bribery that goes along with it.”

CVMS, said this parent who declined to be named, “seems to be taking this to a whole new level.”

Many parents, she said, refuse to allow their kids to impose on friends and relatives to buy magazines that no one reads any more, but they feel bullied into giving something to avoid the shame their kids feel when they are singled out for non-participation.

So, to alleviate guilt, they instead write a check directly to the school.

No complaints

Cara Dolnik, CVMS principal, justified the magazine sales effort, saying, “The idea is to solely raise money that goes back to the school.”

She said she’s never received complaints from parents or students about the fundraiser, and insisted there was no pressure to write checks to the school for those who opt out.

The fundraiser is run through the Associated Student Body class and supports ASB activities, Dolnik said, including school dances, Red Ribbon Week in the fall, Spirit Week in the spring, lunchtime festivities, and the purchase of small school spirit items like wristbands and stickers.

Students who take ASB as a class are not required to sell magazines to get a grade, as some have claimed, but they do have to volunteer at ASB events as part of the class, Dolnik said.

Not all ASB kids are enthusiastic.

Reported one parent, “One ASB kid described feeling ashamed at having to be on stage getting others to sell, because her grade depends on it.”

There was an all-school kick-off assembly last month to introduce the program to the students and explain about the incentives, some of which come in the form of rubber ducks. A “green bling” duck gives the student $10 cash.

Students who collect the ducks are awarded prizes based on the number of subscriptions sold. The more sold, the more prizes.

Students who sell four items receive a “get out of class” pass to go to a show. Eight items gets them an In & Out burger party, a disco light and a free-run pass that opts them out of the mile run in P.E.

There are more prizes for selling more items.

At 20 items, students receive something from Starbucks and a front-of-the-line pass that allows them to cut to the front of the food line all year.

Cash and bigger prizes that escalate in value are promised for those “super sellers” who hit or exceed 40 items sold.

Dolnik verified that prizes do include a “head of the food line” pass and a “one-free-run” pass that allows students to skip the mandatory mile run in P.E. that other students are required to do.

Commented one parent about the P.E. pass, “While the non-fundraisers run their mile, the kids who sold magazines get to do a fun obstacle course set up in the middle of the running route. How awful is that?

“[I]t doesn’t just reward the obedient fundraisers, but literally punishes the children who chose not to push products on their family and friends.”

Declining participation

Dolnik said the fundraiser generated $23,600 for the school last year, $30,600 in 2013, and $32,700 in 2012. This year’s push began this fall, so no numbers are available yet for 2015.

“ASB takes 45 percent of the proceeds from the sales,” she said. “The prizes come out of the other 55 percent from the company.”

The company that profits from the efforts of its young salespeople at Carmel Valley Middle School is Great American Opportunities.

Assuming Great American Opportunities gives the school its 45 percent share before it pays for expenses like the prizes and giveaways, as Dolnik claims, then the children generated a total of $52,444 in sales in 2014, $68,000 in 2013, and $72,667 in 2012.

Given Dolnik’s numbers, the company’s 55 percent came to $28,844 in 2014, $37,400 in 2013, and $39,967 in 2012.

Credit goes to the sales-kids who bought the party line and work hard to generate revenue for their school. Most are doing it for the right reasons — although maybe a little bit for the incentives. Still, they can’t be faulted for their efforts to help their school.

But there’s also no denying that the number of kids participating is declining.

According to Dolnik, the estimated student participation was 30 percent in 2012, 29 percent in 2013, and 18 percent in 2014. The downward trend is clear.

Even the incentives are not enough to pull in kids who object to being employed as unpaid workers.

About those incentives: The “no-run” pass in P.E. sounds like an admission by the school that running the mile is despised rather than the healthy activity it should be presented as. Not a great message to be sending.

And promising unfair rewards like cash, front-of-the-food-line passes and after-school parties crosses the line from an “incentive” to outright bribery — and singles out those kids who don’t want to sell or whose parents object to the program and won’t let them.

Other San Dieguito middle schools used to do the magazine fundraiser, but SDUHSD superintendent Rick Schmitt said CVMS is the only one of the district’s five middle schools that still does it.

This has to be a hard sell these days with so much magazine content available on the Internet and more environmental consciousness about paper waste and conservation of resources.

Do schools really need to send little kids out to badger friends and relatives to buy stuff they don’t want? Surely there are other ways for CVMS to raise funds.

— Marsha Sutton can be reached at suttonmarsha@gmail.com.


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