Reading, Writing, Retailing

Terri Markwart and children Christian, left, Lauren and Megan, visit neighbor Gary Poon to hawk Sally Foster items for their school fundraising project. Sales, which Marwart said are "very, very important to our school," netted $26,000 last year for things not covered in the school's budget. (By Carol Guzy/Post)
By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 9, 2007

There's no escape from Sally Foster.

That's what Janice Schneider of Rockville learned last month as she looked forward to her first fall in years that wouldn't involve buying and selling wrapping paper. She had mostly good feelings about the program that the PTA at her children's school had used for years to fund cultural extras. But by the time her third son finished at Farmland Elementary School, Schneider was ready for a break from the annual rite of hawking wrapping paper and, ultimately, buying enough herself to meet her kids' quota.

Then, in September, Schneider received an e-mail solicitation from a friend. Please follow this link to an online catalog, it said, and your purchase will automatically be credited to my child's school. The long reach of Sally Foster had made it into cyberspace.

"Through the magic of technology, Sally Foster had followed me beyond my child's fifth-grade graduation," Schneider said. "She's everywhere."

Parents in the Washington area know -- as do their co-workers -- that fall is when a fourth "R" appears in the region's school curriculum: retailing. According to Michigan-based Sally Foster Inc., this region is its most-active single territory in the country, with more than 500 schools signed up to peddle its paper and other product lines. This week, as fall fund drives come to an end, schools and PTAs are tallying their sales not just of Sally Foster products but of cookie dough, magazine subscriptions, candy and countless other fundraising offerings, too.

Nationally, such product campaigns amount to $1.3 billion dollars of extra school funding a year, according to the Association of Fund-Raising Distributors and Suppliers. Schools in this area typically raise an average of $10,000 a year from Sally Foster sales, according to Matt Maher, the company's sales director for the Atlantic Coast Region. Some make as much as $35,000, he said. Sally Foster, like most of the programs, splits the profit evenly with schools.

"This is very, very important to our school," said Terri Markwart, who has three children in McLean's Churchill Road Elementary. She is one of the coordinators for the school PTA's Sally Foster campaign, which last year raised $22,000 on almost $46,000 in sales. Over the years, the money has gone for items not in the school's budget, including an outdoor education program, landscaping, storytellers, math nights and an Irish dance performance. "People around here are so familiar with Sally Foster," she said. "It really sells itself."

Such numbers are well out of range for schools in poorer neighborhoods. At Churchill Road's sister school, Dogwood Elementary in Reston, where a majority of students qualify for free or subsidized lunch, the PTA raised less than $6,000 last year.

"These are families that don't have extra money," said Rylan Hutzler, PTA president. "They're not going to buy a lot of wrapping paper."

The updated Internet program that Sally Foster launched this year allows sellers to create lists of friends and family around the world for mass e-mails. But even as some of the trade inevitably goes online, the familiar brick-and-mortar rituals of school fundraising remain in full force: over-the-top pep rallies to fire up the kids, prizes and parties for the big sellers, and parents who sheepishly pass their kids' sales books around the office.

Schneider said her husband's law firm, for example, is particularly fertile territory for wrapping paper sales.

"I always marveled at all the time these lawyers would spend looking at the catalog and filling out forms at $350 an hour," she said. "Just making a donation would save them money."

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