This was the September everyone around Somerset Elementary School had been awaiting for years. Finally, the Chevy Chase area school would reopen with a new building and its first gymnasium.
When parents arrived to check out the new facility, they oohed and aahed at the stately structure. Then they saw the Mountain Dew.
There, next to the gym, stood a soda machine. Lord, have mercy.
"It was like somebody put a dagger through my heart," says Seth Goldman, whose three children have gone through Somerset.
"I stopped breathing when I saw it," says a mom who wouldn't give her name because "I have to live with the principal."
Even in schools suffering from violent gangs, soda machines have become a flash point. There's something about schools cutting deals with the agents of obesity that turns otherwise rational parents into foamers. And in an affluent community such as Somerset, where parents are unsurpassed in their devotion to their school, a soda machine can produce a very fizzy situation.
So it hardly matters to some parents that Somerset Principal Laurie Gross followed Montgomery County rules when she put the machine outside the gym. The machine -- which sells fruit drinks and water as well as colas and the dreaded, caffeine-laced Mountain Dew -- is off during school hours and is meant to serve groups that rent the gym after hours. The idea is for Somerset to rack up extra bucks -- up to $400 a month, by the reckoning of some in the beverage industry.
Montgomery schools spokesman Brian Edwards says principals "are free to make these arrangements with vendors. It does generate revenue schools can use to augment their programs."
That misses the point, says Goldman, who, as founder of the Bethesda-based Honest Tea company, knows from beverages. "They put this machine right next to the gym, where the kids stand in line after PE, all thirsty, and the machine is teasing them. If you were a marketer, you could not pick a better way to get brand impressions on kids."
As head of Somerset's foundation, Goldman helped raise more than $200,000 for the school. "Yes, kids see advertising all the time," he says, "but I didn't put so much effort into building a wonderful commercial-free space for our children only to have our children encounter a glaring advertisement for unhealthy drinks several times a day."
But Gross says: "I don't see this as commercialism in school. It's not a branded machine."
At least six parents tell me that they'd happily contribute the money to replace the school's cut of the soda machine receipts. But Bridget Cowie, co-president of the PTA, says that although "we're a fairly affluent community and I'm sure we could raise the dollars, I don't think parents would want to hand over money to the principal to use as she wishes." Principals and teachers must apply for money from the parent foundation; soda bucks have no strings.
Cowie says there are "legitimate issues about what kids are exposed to," but only about a dozen parents have complained about the machine in a school of 390 families. "I'm less concerned about a soda machine than I am that my kids can buy ice cream sandwiches or gummy bears after lunch in our school." Let's not even mention the french fries sold in middle schools.
With California banning soda sales all the way up to high schools, some Somerset parents say their school is heading in the wrong direction. But others say banning soda machines is an ostrich-like response. "Eventually, my children will have to make choices," Cowie says, "and I would rather teach them to be discriminate consumers than limit their choices."
Although parents who've spoken to Gross about the machine found her unbending, she says "any parent concern is valid to me," and she's considering using student art to replace the machine's big picture of a drink being poured.
You'd think the good people of Somerset could find more important causes. But beyond the health issue, the debate over Dew is about demonstrating values to kids. Educators should know better than to sell out to soda companies for a bit of coin. Principals should stand for principles.
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