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."
In fact, Friends Community School in College Park eliminated its Sally Foster campaign this year, asking parents instead for a flat donation of $50. "We had some people who loved Sally Foster," said Connie Belfiore, the school's interim headmaster. "But we had others who felt selling wrapping paper wasn't in keeping with the Quaker value of simplicity."
Schools go to varying lengths to motivate their young sellers. Sally Foster makes available iPods, digital cameras and other items as prizes for students who sell minimum amounts, although not all schools participate.
At Churchill Road, the PTA doesn't award prizes based on individual sales but does give a gift basket to the teacher who has the most students participate in the program. Markwart and her team set up a wrapping paper display in the school lobby and a table of samples at back-to-school night. Sally Foster advises that kids not sell door-to-door, but Markwart lets her three kids canvass friends on their cul-de-sac.
"We're not too aggressive," she said. "You don't want to drive the parents insane."
Sally Foster is largely a phenomenon of the elementary years. By the time students reach middle school, products such as magazine subscriptions are more common, and the sales pitch is often more intense.
At Tilden Middle School in Rockville, Assistant Principal Jerome Easton has pledged to eat three spoonfuls of canned dog food if 60 percent of the student body sells at least three magazine subscriptions. The school has used the annual subscription drive for years to buy computers and technology equipment, Easton said.
"I think it's working," he said. "Each day someone says, 'You're eating dog food, Mr. Easton. I sold a magazine.' "
The school kicked off the campaign with a schoolwide assembly in September. A representative of the sales company, Mid-Atlantic Fundraising, described the "Super Party" that would be held at the school in November for any student who sells at least five subscriptions. Those who sell 17 subscriptions, according to a flier for the party, will get to spin a "money wheel" and win from $3 to $500. Sellers of 21 subscriptions will get 10 seconds to grab all the air-blown dollars they can from the "Cash Vault," and selling 25 will bring a ride in Hummer stretch limousine.
Not all parents think the hard-sell approach is appropriate for a pint-size sales force.
Several recent discussions among e-mail group members have featured complaints about excessive prizes and class time being used for sales rallies and parties. Last week, Jane de Winter, president of the Montgomery County Council of PTAs, sent a notice to PTA officers reminding them that "class time should not be used for fundraising."
In the case of fundraisers such as Tilden's, which is sponsored directly by the school, county education officials said principals are encouraged to not use class time but are not prohibited from doing so.
"It's distasteful, to say the least," said Anne LeVeque, the mother of a student at Takoma Middle School, which has a magazine subscription program similar to Tilden's.
At LeVeque's request, her daughter was allowed to skip the sales assembly and spent the period in the guidance counselor's office.
"They're taking class time away," she said. "They're doing an assembly where they do this high-pressure selling to the kids with these incredibly tempting things.
"When the school, as a publicly funded entity, has to do this kind of fundraising, something is broken in our system."