August 18, 1999, Wednesday, FINAL EDITION
Cola Contracts Lose Fizz in Schools
By Karen Thomas
Three years ago, the schools in Madison, Wis., were among the first to sign one of those controversial contracts that brought the schools money in return for a cola company getting exclusive rights to sell its sodas on campus. But now the idea has gone flat, and school officials plan to let the deal expire Dec. 31. It failed the public's taste test.
"It's a kind of 'Yuck!' from the community," says Ruth Robarts, one of four members of the seven-seat school board who voted to accept the $ 300,000, three-year contract. If it is put to another vote, she says, she'll oppose a move to renew it. But it's unlikely the board will even consider renewing, she says. Rather, the board will just let it quietly expire.
She says it doesn't matter to parents and community members that the deal, watered down by today's standards, calls simply for Coke products to be stocked in already existing vending machines in four high schools. Nothing quelled the outrage in Madison, Robarts says. "They felt, 'What are public schools doing, promoting one product over another? And an unhealthy product at that?' "
Principals and clubs are disappointed about losing the funds, but parents and even students are thrilled. "In spite of making money and controlling the promotion" by stripping the contract of requirements to display Coke signs or promotions, "it was very controversial," Robarts says. "We're going back to a normal competition for this kind of product. We just would rather not have the negative brand of being an exclusive Coke school."
School district partnerships with cola makers have been controversial since Madison's deal. Supporters argue that upfront money enables schools to fund necessary programs and buy equipment that would otherwise be cut. Critics say schools are selling out kids to commercialism.
Since Madison's deal, 150 similar contracts have been negotiated in 29 states, according to the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education, a nonprofit organization in Oakland, Calif., which opposes beverage deals.
CFPE director Andrew Hagelshaw says schools are now taking a closer look at proposed deals and deciding, like Madison, that the money from beverage contracts isn't worth the headache of being a brand-exclusive school. The group has begun tracking districts that turn down cola contracts.
Among those 21 districts: San Francisco, which voted in July to prohibit contracts in all 116 schools. On a smaller scale, outraged parents from Millerstown, Pa., created such a stir about the Perry County school district's plan to sign a 10-year contract with a cola company that the school board reversed its June decision. Millerstown parents' main objection was about nutrition. But school board president Charles Beaver also says the money -- a $ 10,000 signing bonus; an estimated $ 13,000 annually in commissions -- wasn't all that great when weighed against the district's $ 6.5 million annual budget.
Dan DeRose, a private businessman who acts as a broker in negotiations between schools and cola companies, says interest in exclusive contracts is as strong as ever. "I can't give distinct numbers, but the demand for our services is rapidly increasing," says the president of DD Marketing Inc. in Pueblo, Colo. Since marketers like DeRose have entered the picture, "schools are realizing two, three, four times what they were realizing from the old deals," he says.
This summer, he completed a 10-year deal between a cola maker and the Manteca, Calif., school district, and he says he's close to completing deals with four other districts.
He argues that opponents who think cola contracts leave a bad aftertaste aren't informed. "We're not introducing commercialism in schools with exclusive beverage contracts," he says. Soda machines have been in schools for decades, he says, adding that the same applies to soda-maker ads on athletic scoreboards. Rather, today's cola contracts are "being looked at in a different light as a contract that is beneficial to everyone: the bottler, the school district and the student, or actual consumer."
That's not how Madison sees it. "In a business sense, it was good for us," Robarts says. "But it was a negative in terms of how the public views schools. We're better off without it."
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