There's trouble right here in River Hill


March 25, 2001|By C. FRASER SMITH

A PARENT spent $500 to reserve a parking place for his or her high schooler.

Another gave $320 for special seating at graduation. (Makes you wonder where you'd sit for $20. Sounds like graduation wasn't actually expected and must now be celebrated big-time.)

Okay, okay, it was all part of a fundraiser sponsored by the River Hill High School booster club.

Marquee event: the raffling of a $27,000 automobile (obtained at discount). One of the school's seniors won it.

When the ticket sales netted less than the car's lowered price, boosters chose to award the grand prize anyway.

Under the rules, the club could have withdrawn the car and split the proceeds with the lucky winner: $12,500 for the club, $12,500 for the winner.

But what about the club's credibility? You have to think of the consequences of invoking the fine print: If the pretty car was pulled back, the price of a seat at graduation could start dropping below $300.

In River Hill, a deal's a deal. The winner gets the car and the booster club will find another way to raise the money it needs.

Money to do what?

Buy new band uniforms? Update some of the computer equipment? Put lights on the badminton courts? A new cappuccino machine? Sponsor a boat trip on the Potomac for graduating seniors?

If you answered boat trip you A) Have a future in the raffle business; B) own a Potomac River cruise boat; or C) live in River Hill.

Some sourpusses have seen in this report telltale signs of wretched excess, conspicuous consumption, a sad day for the concept of deferred gratification and even a cultural watershed.

Most of this kvetching is just that. One man's wretched excess is just plain excess to another. What's the value of consumption if it's not conspicuous, after all? Doesn't Alan Greenspan count on it? And isn't deferred gratification a contradiction in terms?

The one point we have to consider seriously is the cultural one: You're not supposed to have wheels like this when you're 18 or so. You're not supposed to get a red Camaro convertible until you're 70 when you can't really enjoy it (probably shouldn't be driving).

That's the American way. That's the promise that keeps us chained to computer terminals.

The student winner obviously realizes this: He has decided to keep the car for a few months and then sell it. He clearly has his head on straight: He said his first thoughts were insurance and taxes. (First? We wonder if this was really true. Maybe you'd get to taxes and insurance, but wouldn't you be thinking first about... oh I don't know.) Or maybe you'd be wondering how to pay for one of those $500 parking spots.

Beyond River Hill, to be sure, other boosters and other onlookers clucked and clucked.

Didn't River Hill know it would be held up to public scorn? Didn't its boosters know some spoil sport would be mocking them for their good citizenship? All over Maryland, schools that need computers (books even)are struggling mightily against the impulse to jealousy.

Critics say River Hill's example will have a seriously negative backlash: If Howard County schools can afford to raffle Camaros and to forego $12,500, maybe the state's education dollar can go to schools where badminton is played in the dark, where the cappuccino machine is two, three years old.

There is precedent for this sort of sniping. One brand-new school's booster leader took flak recently when her group's magazine-subscription drive offered an extra inducement: a chance to win a $27,000 Dodge Caravan. She said that effort suffered when she said she hoped to raise $100,000.

"You spoiled brat," someone barked at her. "You already have a new school." When her kids tried to move the magazines, some customers said, "No, no, no. I'd rather buy for the poor school."

Now, she says, "I'm very low key. I play it low."

But River Hill can play it high if it chooses. And if the rest of the world wants to carp, the world ought to come up with some alternate uses for the money. We've already mentioned books, lights, coffee machines and trips to fast food emporiums.

Here are a few others:

A shopping spree for every graduate at the GAP, Old Navy, Nordstrom, Britches or Sunny's Surplus, the actual venue to be determined by ticket sale.

Free body piercing or tattooing.

A private, high school seniors-only concert by the group of choice to be determined by a vote.

A trip to the Folger Shakespeare Theater for a private performance of the "Merchant of Venice" or "As You Like It."

These options are offered in the spirit invoked by River Hill's principal, Scott Hill, who told Sun reporter Laura Vozzella:

"It's about more than raising money. It's the long term. It's the tradition, and traditions are something we need to work on here at River Hill."

C. Fraser Smith writes editorials for The Sun from Howard County.

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