Parties, perks and peer pitches lure schools

marketing tactics

September 19, 2004|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

When Karen Stanford, the technology director at Hyattsville Elementary School, ran into one of her school district's administrators at the annual Maryland education technology convention in May, she had one question: Why wasn't the administrator on the cruise the night before?

The 90-minute spin around Baltimore's harbor was on the 124-foot Duchess of Pintail, chartered for $3,000 by Pearson Digital Learning, the country's largest education software company. The menu: crab dip, quesadillas and other hors d'oeuvres, free beer and wine. Those invited: four dozen teachers and administrators from Maryland schools that had bought Pearson software or were considering it.

Stanford had extra reason to be invited on board, though. She spent hours at the two-day event standing at Pearson's vendor booth at the Baltimore Convention Center, praising the company's classroom software to educators who approached.

As districts spend more on education software, more officials are accepting invitations to speak on behalf of products at conventions. Some districts forbid employees from accepting pay or perks such as free air travel in return for the endorsement, but many don't.

In Stanford's case, Pearson paid her way at the conference and invited her on the cruise. Stanford raved about the experience the next day when she ran into Prince George's County's technology support director, Judith Finch, on the convention floor. Finch had been invited on the cruise but had declined.

"It was the lap of luxury," Stanford said, not realizing that Finch was standing with a news reporter. "This was the kind of yacht you don't need a sweater for, it was so warm. They had these leather upholstered couches that you just sink back into. I'm telling you, I could live like this."

Deborah Yuille, Pearson's representative at the convention, said the cruise was not meant to unduly influence school spending decisions.

"It was just a collective thank you," she said. "It's customer appreciation for those working with us and those considering it."

Stanford also told Finch that Pearson was offering to send her to the national education technology convention in New Orleans the next month, for further promotion. Finch interrupted and told Stanford that this would need to be approved by county officials, a requirement Stanford said no one had mentioned to her before. Later, Finch said she had not been aware that Stanford was pitching for Pearson.

In a later interview, Stanford said she had cleared her work at the convention with her superiors and was helping Pearson out of enthusiasm for its products.

"I love their program. It's the best thing since sliced bread," she said. "I'm more than willing to spread the word for them."

A district spokeswoman said last week that Stanford's work for Pearson has been referred to a county ethics panel for investigation.

Stanford did not make the trip to New Orleans. But 26 other administrators and school technology directors from Prince George's did, making the county one of the best-represented districts in the country. (Baltimore, by contrast, had one representative.)

The cost of their attendance - $27,286, district officials say - was paid for mainly through federal grants intended for training teachers in how to make use of technology.

Jayne E. Moore, the state's director of instructional technology, voiced reservations about this use of the grants, noting that the money is meant primarily for classroom teachers, not technology directors who are already well-versed in computers.

"It's not a universally held opinion that that's the best use of the money," she said.

But Finch said the large contingent was worthwhile because the technology directors would return with ideas to pass on to teachers: "We encourage people to look at the latest and greatest and develop a vision to share with stakeholders back here."

Many in the Prince George's contingent could be found at a cocktail party sponsored by Pearson in the New Orleans Hilton on the convention's final evening. One county attendee, Region IV technology director Mary Ward, said the convention had served its intended purpose: "In order to keep abreast of what's going on in the world, we have to participate."

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