Changing times cast shadow over funding for Howard stadium lights

On High Schools

High Schools

September 19, 2004|By MILTON KENT

EVER LOOK at a painting or a poster on the wall and think that it looks askance, only to discover later that it's actually hanging properly?

That, in a nutshell, is the way the effort to garner corporate support to fund lights at 11 Howard County public high school stadiums appears at first glance. The solution might not appear optimal, but, given the reality of the times, it may be the most viable way to go.

While old-timers fondly remember the days when football, soccer and lacrosse games were played in the daylight, today's lifestyle - with both parents working out of the home and with plenty of commitments on the weekends - practically demands that games be played at night.

But at a time when school systems, even in counties as affluent as Howard, are having trouble providing the essentials to students, lights at a stadium are a decided luxury.

That didn't stop a group of Howard residents from setting out to get lights into the stadiums with a two-year project to raise about $1.1 million to fund the project, culminating with having the lights in place by Oct. 1.

To pull that off, Don Disney, the county's coordinator of athletics, set a deadline of Sept. 28 for raising all money to have the lights turned on by Oct. 1, but with very important caveats.

Although Glenelg, Oakland Mills and Mount Hebron have lights up and are ready to go, no school could use them until all the schools had lights. And all schools would be treated similarly in terms of funding for lights, from the wealthiest to the poorest.

"This has been community-based and equity-driven," Disney said.

Through the usual fund-raising efforts, as well as the sale of season tickets at a premium above normal, the project has moved within striking distance of the goal, but has fallen short.

To get there, project leaders sought corporate support from a variety of sources, including the Rouse Co., Columbia's developer. For their contributions, the 20 sponsors will receive a 4-by-8-foot banner at all schools that will be visible to the entire stadium, as well as recognition in game programs and plaques for seven years.

The most visible and potentially most controversial corporate contribution comes from McDonald's, which will donate 25 percent of proceeds collected over a three-hour period from 16 county restaurants on Sept. 27 toward the cause.

The partnership between the fast-food giant and the schools is a natural one, and it's understandable that McDonald's would want to be a part of the campaign.

After all, high schoolers not only make up a significant percentage of McDonald's clientele, but also a pretty high percentage of its work force. Add that to the notion that a number of McDonald's just happen to be located within a reasonable driving distance of high schools, and you have a combination stronger than two all-beef patties and special sauce.

There will be some who will raise an eyebrow about the wisdom of having a fast-food chain become a sponsor of athletics at a time when the nation is going carb-crazy.

Disney said he expects to get calls about that subject, but points out that the Montgomery County system has permitted Boardwalk Fries to be involved in some of its schools, adding that vending machines have become a staple of school buildings.

"McDonald's is making a concerted effort to expose kids to healthier choices, and we can all make choices in what we eat," Disney said.

To be fair, McDonald's is hardly the only company in the mix that is attempting to curry community favor with a sizable donation. There are car dealerships, real estate agents, banks and the like, all hoping the kids and their parents remember who helped light the stadium the next time they're in the market for one of their products.

And it could be worse. As Disney points out, in states like Indiana and Ohio, the athletic budgets are funded entirely by gate receipts, advertising and a pay-to-play system, where the athletes themselves fork over a fee for a spot on the team.

Still, when a school system has to turn to a burger giant to help provide a service for its students, it may be a sign that it's time for the painting to be re- adjusted on the wall.

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