Lacking Guaranteed Funding, Philadelphia Schools Beg for Donations through Social Media
As Philadelphia public schools opened last week in the face of an $81 million deficit and the prospect of 1,000 layoffs, a digital marketing start-up tried to get businesses to donate paper.
By Samantha Melamed
As principal at John Wister Elementary School in East Germantown, Donna Smith is used to stretching scant resources. But this year is different. "Bare necessities are difficult," she said. "During the 13 years I've been here, it's never been as bad as it is right now. My entire budget for basic supplies is a little over $3,000 for the school year." That's less than $7 per student, making things like copy paper unaffordable luxuries.
As Philadelphia public schools reopened last week in the face of an $81 million deficit and the prospect of 1,000 layoffs if a cigarette-tax hike isn't approved, supplying paper was the least of Smith's worries -- which include deep cuts to crucial supportive teaching staff.
But it's one worry local businesses hope to assuage, by borrowing tactics from the viral success of the Facebook-feed-consuming ice-bucket challenge, which raised more than $100 million for the ALS Association this year.
The University City digital marketing start-up Leadnomics launched a challenge, #StackThatPaper, with the goal of leveraging its social-media savvy to incite other businesses to donate -- or, as a fund-raising stunt, post video of themselves planking with reams of paper stacked on their backs.
Meanwhile, Annette Rapinesi, legal secretary at the Center City law firm Reed Smith LLP, has been gathering 100 boxes per year of scrap paper (that's about 500,000 sheets) for schools. Recently, she also started using Facebook to call out colleagues around town, trying to get them to support the cause.
Anittah Patrick, Leadnomics director of consumer products, said there's a reason teachers' annual paper chase seems to resonate with businesspeople.
"It just fundamentally rankles our core sense of justice . . . the idea that some children, particularly those that are in our public schools, are being left behind," she said. "For people, especially in the business community, who are used to being masters of their own little universe -- to feel completely disempowered to make a difference bothers that kind of person."
In order to empower them, Leadnomics has created a website, leadnomics.com/about/stackthatpaper, where companies can pledge support, and is building a leader board to fuel the competitive spirit.
Next, they'll be calling out individuals and companies by name, challenging them to donate paper and post videos of themselves doing paper-weighted planks or push-ups.
Patrick, for her part, pledged $6 per pack of paper she could support while sustaining the plank position.
"I thought it'd be like five, but I ended up being able to plank a whole box," she said.
Did she expect colleagues to follow suit?
"I think it would be fun if people did," she said. "But I could understand how some of the men in the business community might be intimidated by my brawn."
Leadnomics' initial goal is to collect 72 boxes of paper, enough to supply one school for a year. Zach Robbins, the company's chief executive, said Leadnomics has more paper in its supply closet than it needs -- and thinks other tech start-ups may be in the same position.
"Doing things like this, where we can flex our marketing muscles to give back," just makes sense, he said.
Initial feedback was positive. "Within hours of just putting this on our Facebook and Twitter, the first people to reach out were teachers."
Rapinesi, of Reed Smith, is well aware of the need, which she said has ballooned since she began collecting paper for schools in 2001.
She came up with the idea after noticing that every printout in her office included a nearly blank banner page. Since her office includes more than 150 lawyers and their support staff using dozens of printers on six floors, those pages add up. So, she placed a collection box by each printer. When they're full, she ships them off to schools.
Rapinesi said she sent out 15 boxes of paper in just the last two weeks, and still has eight teachers on a waiting list. "I got today five requests from different schools asking me for more, and I can't keep up with them," she said.
She is hoping her Facebook challenge to other companies could help. "I would love to have one company for each of the schools," she said. This year, principal Smith of Wister told her teachers their best bet for paper was to contact Rapinesi. More than 25 have.
Wister second-grade teacher Lindsay Brown said Reed Smith's parcels have been her only source of copy paper for the last four years. (She also has run fund-raisers via DonorsChoose.org, and spends $200 to $1,000 per year of her own money above the $100 supply stipend teachers are given. That covers markers, pencils, and even things like hand soap and sanitizer, since the bathrooms have none.)
"I remember when I first started [nine years ago], we'd get a box of copy paper at the beginning of the school year, sometimes two boxes," she said. "But just going to the copy machine and hitting start, that doesn't exist."
Rapinesi said her post didn't exactly go viral, but she'll try again. She believes the more people contemplate both the severity of the problem and the ease with which they could help address it, the more they will feel compelled to act.
Patrick knows paper donations are not a fix for inadequate school funding, but she hopes they'll send a message.
"All the paper we collect is just going to be a drop in the bucket. But it's got to start somewhere. At least we can say to Harrisburg: 'We stacked paper. What about you?' "
(c)2014 The Philadelphia Inquirer