Every spring Bonnie MacIntyre, a professional photographer, makes the rounds of area high schools seeking contracts for yearbook and class pictures.
Whether or not she gets the contract doesn't always have to do with her prices or whether she's a good photographer. Often it depends on how much of a percentage she's willing to pay the school.
Few students or parents are aware of the practice or the fact that it can add as much as $15 to the cost of the pictures a senior normally purchases. But in the competitive world of class picture-taking, such commissions -- often as high as $3,000 -- are an accepted way of doing business.
School principals use the money to finance student activities such as the newspaper or chess club that chronically run short of funds. They feel the commissions are a big help in a time of declining budgets.
Barbara Hines, an assistant dean of journalism at the University of Maryland and a former yearbok adviser at a Prince George's County high school, isn't so sure.
"It's hard for one ethical photo studio, who may be giving students the best possible deal, to get a contract," she says. "It's 'What will we get from you?'
"The students yearbook editor usually sits in on the negotiating sessions, and I don't think it sets a very good example for the students to see that a deal can be worked out. It's often only the students involved in the school government who are aware of the commission practice."
At Parkdale High School in Prince George's County, over 500 seniors bought class pictures this year, paying a photographer an average of about $50 each. The schol received a 10 percent commission, approximately $2,500 of the picture money at an average extra cost of $5 for each student.
According to Parkdale's principal, Dr. Charles Cockrell, "That money comes back to the school to support publications -- the yearboook, the newspaper. We don't buy things other than that with the money. The benefit goes back to the student to lower the price of the yearbook."
The president of the school PTA, Col. John Schaffer, was unaware of the commission practice, which occurs at nearly every school in Maryland and Virginia. But, he said, "I'm not surprised. It seems like every time you turn around you're taking money out of your pocket for your kid's public school education. But I don't object to it because the schools could probably use the money."
The amount of money to be made varies from school to school, since bidding procedures do not govern picture contracts in Maryland and Virginia. In addition to a percentage of gross sales, a principal can opt to receive a sitting fee, which the student pays regardless of whether he or she buys the pictures. Sitting fees range from $3 to $5.
Lance Statler, principal of Largo High School in Prince George's, currently does not contract for a commission on senior pictures, though his school does receive a commission for underclassmen's pictures.
"But I think I'll get one (commission for senior pictures) next year. All my colleagues are doing it, and we need the money."
Statler recently negotiated with MacIntyre Studio to receive $800 to $1,000 of total senior picture sales.
For underclassmen pictures the school receives about $1 per package sold. The average package purchased this year cost $7.50, and approximately 600 10th and 11th graders purchased them.
The $600 from the pictures goes into the school's general fund. "Once you get the money into the general fund," Statler said, "you can use it for any legitimate purpose. I get an administrative allotment as part of the general fund for postage, which has gone way up, and for repair of office equipment, and things like that. The picture money is not necessarily used to defray costs."
Bladensburgh High School received $4,600 in commissions from senior pictures this year. According to Brian Porter, a spokesman for Prince George's County public schools, this money bailed out the school newspaper, which had an annual deficit of $1,500 and the yearbook, which, priced at $17 per copy, still had a $3,000 annual deficit.
Thomas J. Cabelus, principal of Langley High School in McLean, refused to disclose the commission his school receives from Delma Studios, but said that parents, through his "Principal's Newsletter," are told that a commission is obtained from class pictures. Parents are entitled to get back their share of the commission if they object.
For the photographers, the commissions are accepted as a fact of life.
"We don't give them (the schools) a commission out of the kindness of our hearts. It's required to stay in business," said the manager of one studio. "It's robbing Peter to pay Paul."
MacIntyre's studio didn't give any commissions until about five years ago when it was faced with the choice of competing on a commission basis or going out of business.
Because her firm will only pay a 10 percent commission it often loses out to a competitor who's willing to pay more.
Recently, for example, it lost a high school contract to a studio that offered to pay the school 20 percent of gross sales, $9 per student photographed, or $2,500 -- whichever was greater.
"I would rather give students a discount and do away with the commission," she says. "These kids are paying through the nose for their pictures."