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Consumer Reports

School chief may sell rights to name district on eBay | (KRT) BROOKLAWN, N.J. — Yes, school-board chief Bruce Darrow insisted, he really is contemplating peddling the naming rights to his New Jersey district's only school on eBay.

You see, piped in John Kellmayer, superintendent of the tiny pre-K-through-8 district, something has got to be done to protect the values of an old-fashioned education.

"We understand what's going on in the educational marketplace," Kellmayer said. "In 10 years, this is going to be a fact of life. We're aggressive enough to start this now."

Aggressive, creative or crazy: Take your pick. Kellmayer and Darrow, school board president and "director of corporate development," preside over a district that is banking not just on government aid but on selling naming rights, snagging sponsorships, and launching other money-generating ventures to fund its future.

"We're working people," Darrow said. "But we've got to get our kids on equal footing, and we have to be innovative."

On one side of the ledger is flat basic state aid, soaring insurance costs, and a small community unwilling to shoulder any more tax burden - New Jersey classifies Brooklawn as one of its poorer districts.

On the other is what the district has managed to do - slash class sizes, hire more teachers, buy more equipment, build new facilities, improve test scores, and record a five-year streak of not asking residents for more money.

Striding through the halls of Alice Costello School, the only building in this 285-student district, Darrow, 51, an ex-jock turned businessman, stopped in front of a Pepsi machine pushed against a wall.

While other districts banish soda, Brooklawn welcomes it - and the money it brings. Students may not buy carbonated beverages during school hours, but the contract is still a moneymaker at 40 cents per drink, bringing in about $3,000 annually.

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Pepsi is just a start. Darrow's half-joking motto is "Nothing is Sacred; he bought sons Brett and Austin T-shirts that say "Rent this Space," a nod to one of his favorite ideas - instituting a school uniform policy and selling ads on the uniforms.

"John always says, `Will you buy a used school from this man?' " Darrow said, swinging open the door to the gym and pointing to a hoop a dozen yards away. "You could put a `For Sale' sign on that net."

The eBay bid is still on the table, too, although Kellmayer thinks Brooklawn could make more money by directly appealing to corporations. No target price has been set.

Brooklawn set itself on its current path in 2001, when it attracted international headlines for selling the naming rights to the new gym to the only supermarket in town for $100,000.

Children used to play basketball in a cramped multipurpose room until the spacious $3.3 million ShopRite of Brooklawn Center was built. The supermarket is paying the debt service on the bond.

There was no library until a local family of businesspeople gave $100,000 toward the construction of the Flowers Library and Media Center.

Bulky with shoulder-length brown hair and mustache, Kellmayer, 53, roams the halls in loose sweaters and rumpled khakis, not suits. People often comment on the resemblance he bears to Mick Foley, the former World Wrestling Entertainment superstar.

But he holds an MBA as well as a doctorate in education, and he thinks Brooklawn, where he has worked since 2000, should shoot way beyond sponsorship. The district should function like a private corporation, he says.

With the advent of No Child Left Behind and President Bush's push for educational choice, there are opportunities aplenty, he said.

Brooklawn took another major step by becoming Camden County's pilot Interdistrict School Choice school in 2002. Under the state program, parents from any district may apply to send their children to Brooklawn.

There are a limited number of spots in the program, and the state pays the full cost of educating School Choice pupils.

The district has sold itself hard to parents in other districts, offering specialized instruction in music and technology and promising parents, "We Guarantee Your Child's Success!"

The program has proved popular with sending parents, most of whom live in nearby Camden and Gloucester City. But the 59 students - 30 more are expected next year - are also a major financial boon to Brooklawn.

The $515,000 the state paid Brooklawn last year in School Choice made it possible to cut class size and hire new teachers. Elsewhere in Camden County, budgets soared, but the average increase in state aid payments was less than 1 percent.

In the coming years, Kellmayer hopes Brooklawn can open a virtual school, a technology center to train businesspeople from around the country, and other profit-making ventures.

It has already secured state approval to be a "supplemental learning provider," competing with firms such as Sylvan Learning Center, to provide extra educational help that parents from districts failing under NCLB guidelines get money to pay for.

"Why should the public education industry be cannibalized by the private sector?" he said.

He paused in the middle of a hallway bright with crayon drawings and spelling tests, looking around for a second and answering a question about Brooklawn's new business ventures that no one had asked.

"Do I think it's a wonderful idea?" Kellmayer asked. "No, but it's going to happen, and we might as well grab a piece of it."

"We want to turn a profit and reinvest it in education."

To those who fight against commercialization in education, Brooklawn's path is a sacrilege, a body blow to the last bastion of unblemished public space.

Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, a national anti-commercialism group, says the path the school district is taking is foolish and dangerous.

"There's no doubt that thousands of school districts around the country are desperately short on funds, but the answer is not to put our kids up for sale," said Ruskin, who believes that Brooklawn administrators could better spend their time lobbying to reverse federal tax cuts to fund education.

"Compulsory education laws exist to teach kids to read and write and add and think, not to shop," he said. "Their model is to turn the school into an amphitheater of commercialism. Ultimately, that's a bad deal."

Even though the architects of Brooklawn's new direction see why they are subject to criticism, they are quick to defend their position.

"You don't raise the amount of money we need by a bake sale," Kellmayer said. "Look, we're not going to do anything that will embarrass the community. I won't let that happen."

In the early days of his career at Alice Costello, Bob Lee, who teaches music and technology and is copresident of the teachers' union, pieced together the district's ragtag computer lab.

"We came in on a Saturday morning and pulled wires through the ceiling just to get something going," said Lee, a 10-year teacher. "We had no money, no resources."

Sure, he heard the talk when the new gym was built.

But all Lee knows now is while other districts cut their budgets to make ends meet, he's got a brand-new classroom, another teacher to help with the music program, and a cluster of sophisticated computers.

"The way I see it is, teachers get benefits from all this," he said.

Doreen Wentzell has two boys in Alice Costello - the school was named after a teacher and principal from the 1950s - and serves as PTA president. She has no qualms with Brooklawn's new direction, and she loves the district's close-knit feel.

"People don't realize how much it takes to run a school system. You just pay your taxes every quarter, but anymore, that doesn't cover it," she said.

And while there was some community resistance at first, the chatter has largely stopped, said Wentzell.

Kellmayer freely admits his plans are lofty. His ultimate goal - dubbed "The Lexington Project," after the battles of Lexington and Concord, which began the American Revolution - is to raise enough private money to eliminate the local property tax in Brooklawn.

But even if he never gets there, Kellmayer feels certain his way is the way of the future and someday, Brooklawn will be known as much more than the home of the original Ponzio's Diner and one of the country's largest Wiffle ball tournaments.

"Someday," he said, "someone will ask, `Where did this all start?' and someone else will say, `A little school in Brooklawn, New Jersey.' "

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© 2004, The Philadelphia Inquirer Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services