South Portland sells out its children

Earlier this month, the South Portland Board of Education gave its superintendent permission to use the district’s schoolchildren to raise money from business and corporate interests. As the Current community newsweekly reported in its regional edition last week, a majority of the board and members of the public who spoke during the Feb. 8 meeting supported the plan, which Superintendent Ken Kunin will now put into action.

The proposal will allow commercial advertising at Martin Field and inside Beal Gym, both on the South Portland High School campus. Kunin reportedly told the board he expects to raise about $30,000 in advertising revenue this year, money that will go into the district’s general fund with the intention (but no requirement) that it will help pay stipends to coaches of school sports teams who’ve had their compensation cut in recent years.

The decision was prompted by school officials’ reluctance to request a property tax increase to fund sports activities, which cost taxpayers over $738,000 every year. The idea of cutting sports programs to save money was opposed by residents who argued at the meeting that “the ability to play sports is often the key to keeping kids interested in school and keeping their grades up,” Current reporter Kate Irish Collins wrote. The idea that school sports can be more affordably and equitably offered by opening programs to any child who wants to play, regardless of ability — in a system that emphasizes healthful participation over cutthroat competition — was not even raised, as far as I can tell.

You know something’s fundamentally wrong when it’s a community like South Portland that feels it’s too strapped for cash to compensate school employees. The suburban “city” south of Portland has greatly benefitted from the exceptionally strong demand for housing in the neighboring burgh. I know numerous people who’ve moved in recent years from Portland to South Portland as rising rents and property values squeezed them out of the Forest City in search of more affordable digs nearby.

Property values and real estate development in South Portland have been on the rise this decade, providing more tax money for a city government that’s now crying poor. Let’s also not forget that the epicenter of corporate retail activity in this state is located in South Portland: the Maine Mall. The economy is not to blame for South Portland’s fiscal woes, whether real or imagined. The politicians at the state and local levels who control the purse strings are responsible.

A community that valued public education would kick those pols out of office after the school board pulled a shameful stunt like this. But as the Current’s reporter noted, the parents who spoke out this month think the ability to play games under bright lights on Friday nights is the only thing keeping many kids interested in school. What does that say about the relevance of the curriculum and the skills of South Portland’s teachers? Nothin’ good, that’s for sure.

Three of the seven school board members opposed Kunin’s plan to make money marketing the district’s students to advertisers eager to reach this (almost literally) captive audience. A couple of them objected on principle, and numerous questions were raised pertaining to what types of advertising would be acceptable and who would determine that. None of those questions were answered, but Kunin believes he’s now free to develop an advertising plan and begin implementing it without another vote by the board.

There is a valuable lesson here for South Portland students, and here it is: “The people in charge of your education view you as a commodity that can be exploited for cash. They cannot manage the budget they’re responsible for balancing, and fear that if they ask the adults in your community for a little more money to pay coaches, the adults will vote them out of their jobs. So they’re selling you out to save themselves, which works because you can’t vote yet and your parents are too apathetic to raise a stink.

“The people who run your school also believe that if you cannot kick or bat a ball around while playing for a competitive team, you won’t care to learn the important things you need to know to survive in this world. They obviously think you’re hopelessly stupid and lazy — attributes that, not coincidentally, the business interests who’ll soon be advertising inside your school are banking on to sell you stuff.

“But listen up, kid. The odds you’ll make a living as a professional athlete are worse than a million to one. Life is not about what you buy, it’s about who you are. You are not just a consumer or customer. You are a contributor to the human race worthy of more respect than those in charge of your education are showing you. It’s ultimately up to you to prove them wrong.”

Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.