August 31, 2004
They are worse than phone solicitors. Worse because you can’t just hang up on them. Plus, they are so darned cute. They appear at our doorsteps, politely asking us to buy candy bars, coupon books and magazines. Say “no,” and their hopeful faces drop, their shoulders sag and they lumber away, crushed because another stingy grown-up won’t support their struggling school. Just when you thought it was safe to answer the door without finding a Scout selling cookies or popcorn, here comes the back-to-school fund-raising brigade. Sure, the school PTOs and PTAs have good reasons to go after the money. It covers extras not in the school budget, says Jim Stamper, Academy School District 20 administrative support services chief. “Wish-list things,” he says, such as playgrounds, computers and enrichment programs. The product sold is up to the school’s parent group. Some raise thousands of dollars. Students get toys and limousine rides as incentives to make the sale. The lure of prizes is enough to transform meek little kids into hard-sell moguls. My son talked me into ordering $75 worth of magazines for his middle school last year so he could earn a pack of Starburst candy. I would’ve rather had $75 worth of Starburst. My daughter Megan’s school, High Plains Elementary, is in the thick of selling Gold C coupon books for $10. The school gets $4.50 for each book sold, says High Plains PTO fund-raising chairwoman Karen Sulpizio. Last year’s $3,000 windfall bought 11 used iMac computers, an electric piano for the music room and supplies for a reading program. “Worthy things,” Sulpizio says. “We’re not frivolous.” If Megan is any indication, the prizes should help sales. She wants the digital phone with a touch-screen dialing pad; to get it, she must sell 50 coupon books. “What’s wrong with your old touchtone phone?” I ask her. A lot, it seems. “This one has a hands-free option, onhold music and much more,” she says, quoting the glossy prize brochure from memory. I try to steer her to the trinkets that come with more modest sales quotas. I point out the cool glasses made from drinking straws. “Watch your drink swirl around your eyes,” the brochure boasts. So what if it comes with a “choking hazard” warning? One coupon book sale is all it takes. I cut her a check, which she sees as the beginning, not the end. “Only 49 more to go,” she says. Like most parents, I am forced to the sales front. Our company has an electronic bulletin board. It is a great way to unload used cars, noisy parakeets and old furniture. One stroke of the keyboard sends the sales pitch to everyone in the building. Unfortunately, my co-worker Rich Laden has launched his “can’t-live-without-’em discount coupon books that save you so much money you won’t need retirement benefits” campaign for his two adorable children. I can’t compete with Rich — he’s a savvy business reporter — but this is couponbook war. I’ll show him. I’ll give away free cookies with every purchase. I still have a few dozen boxes I bought from the Girl Scouts.