Fort Wayne Community Schools seeks right fit with naming-rights sponsors
Operating Amp Lab at Electric Works doesn’t come cheap. Fort Wayne Community Schools is looking to find a way to fund its annual costs of $2.2 million and generate more tuition support dollars from the state. Three entities have each agreed to sponsor one of Amp Lab's four educational studios for $625,000, while FWCS is looking at other resources to get funding for different programs. The annual costs include $882,000 in rent before sponsorships and about $1.3 million for 15 staff positions. FWCS based the sponsorship amount on an equation based on the facility’s rent and renovation costs, which the district normally would not be paying for.
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Fort Wayne Community Schools faces annual costs of about $2.2 million and, as officials have said, the high school program doesn’t add to FWCS’ enrollment, which would generate more tuition support dollars from the state.
That’s why the district last year began accepting corporate sponsorships for naming rights lasting five years. So far, three entities have each agreed to sponsor one of Amp Lab’s four educational studios for $625,000.
Although that approach represents a first in FWCS’ more than 160-year history, districts elsewhere in Indiana and the country have generated cash that way for years. They offer naming rights to places including classrooms, libraries, high school wings, performing arts centers, playgrounds, conference rooms, parking lots, computer labs and school offices.
“Naming rights agreements are not so new,” said Terry Spradlin, executive director of the Indiana School Boards Association.
In Mishawaka, the Penn-Harris-Madison Education Foundation launched a naming campaign several years ago in conjunction with the P-H-M School Corp.
Donations benefit professional development initiatives for district teachers and the foundation’s endowment, which supports various co-curricular and extracurricular programs, its website states.
While the Mishawaka district advertises six categories of naming opportunities, FWCS has a narrower focus. That’s intentional, said Mitch Sheppard, FWCS philanthropy director.
“Putting one’s name on something should be rare and very, very special,” she said. “For example, we wouldn’t establish a low cash value, short-term naming right because neither entity would benefit from that partnership.”
Sheppard said sponsorships are intended to enhance and expand educational opportunities for students.
“It should not ever be considered a replacement for foundational funding from the state,” she said.
But FWCS is underfunded, said Noah Smith, a board member who helped secure an Amp Lab sponsorship.
“We need to look at other resources to get funding for different programs,” he said.
Actions at the Statehouse might lead to other districts doing the same, said Phil Downs, an assistant professor at Trine University’s Franks School of Education.
“Anything that the state legislature does this year that negatively impacts school districts’ abilities to raise revenue through local property taxes will lead to more referenda, hoping for alternative funding through sponsorships, or a diminishment of their facilities,” said Downs, who is also a former Southwest Allen County Schools superintendent.
The sponsorship dollars FWCS is getting for Amp Lab are different from gifts and grants, such as Steel Dynamic Inc.’s $20,000 donation that supports a robotics team at North Side High School.
Sheppard described the latter as a traditional grant aimed at a specific program, for which a specific budget was submitted. The dollars may only be used for those items.
Sponsorships are about partnerships, she said.
“It’s very much, we’re in this together, and our identity will be married to yours,” Sheppard said. “It’s about sharing reputation and sharing a belief in the product.”
The annual costs of Amp Lab, an immersive half-day program, include $882,000 in rent before sponsorships and about $1.3 million for 15 staff positions – 11 teachers/coaches, two assistant principals, an administrative assistant and a secretary/treasurer.
FWCS based the $625,000 Amp Lab sponsorship amount on an equation based on the facility’s rent and renovation costs – investments the district normally wouldn’t be paying for, Sheppard said.
The total of those costs was divided by the number of years in the lease to get a one-year total, she said. That number was divided by four because FWCS planned to sell naming rights to four spaces.
“We didn’t want to be arbitrary,” Sheppard said. “We wanted to be fair and equitable, and we wanted to base it on something that was real world. And believe me, there’s nothing more real world than that lease that we have with the most exciting development in all of northeast Indiana.”
Sponsors trust FWCS to use those funds on the most pressing need or the greatest opportunity within the sponsored entity, Sheppard said.
“The money would be dedicated to Amp Lab,” she said, “but the district has flexibility in that they can use that for some of the higher overhead expenses or if an amazing opportunity should strike.”
FWCS isn’t the only local district seeking corporate support. Southwest Allen County Schools is seeking a long-term sponsorship with Lutheran Health Network.
Under the proposed terms, Lutheran would pay the district $75,000 annually, with $10,000 designated for the SACS Education Foundation.
The nonprofit education foundation provides financial and general support to the district, including scholarships benefiting students’ enrichment activities outside of school.
The proposed memorandum of understanding, which was recently shared with the board, doesn’t mention naming rights. However, it does state SACS would grant exclusive partnership rights in the health care category and provide first right of refusal for future sponsorship deals with the district.
SACS Superintendent Park Ginder told the board he hopes the deal will be the first of many.
Allen County’s size could make that difficult, though. Many businesses don’t want to be seen as committing to one school at the expense of possibly losing customers around town, said Downs, the Trine assistant professor.
The dynamic is different in larger metropolitan areas, such as Indianapolis, where many car dealerships sponsor schools, Downs said. In Fort Wayne, he said, dealerships have a citywide customer base rather than having a close association with specific geographical areas.
FWCS – the largest district statewide – is likely the safest bet for prospective sponsors because of its size, Downs said. It has about 2,500 more students than the other three Allen County districts combined.
Amp Lab’s experience with naming rights will likely set the tone for future sponsorships in FWCS, Sheppard said, noting the district lacks a policy addressing the topic.
“This will guide the potential development of that,” she said.
Generally, Downs said, decisions about naming rights and sponsorships – including which facilities are off limits and which sponsors are acceptable – should include input from the school board.
What’s allowed at one district might not be OK at another.
“It’s about navigating the community,” Downs said.
Local legal counsel can help districts craft contracts or agreements, said Spradlin, the Indiana School Boards Association leader.
Downs recommends districts include a clause allowing them to break the contract if the sponsor becomes associated with an embarrassment factor.
SACS has language in its proposed memorandum of understanding with Lutheran indicating the district can terminate the agreement anytime without penalty if something adversely affects students’ educational experience.
Finding sponsors goes deeper than searching for willing, appropriate partners, Sheppard said.
“The bond between us is who we are in the community and what we’re trying to accomplish matching who they are in the community and what they’re trying to accomplish,” Sheppard said. “You would never get a sponsorship from someone that didn’t have a really, really deep attachment to the outcome.”
Amp Lab launched this academic year with four educational studios – a science research and development lab with a greenhouse; a content creators lab; a maker space and fabrication lab; and a venture and strategy lab.
The sponsored spaces are known as the 3Rivers Federal Credit Union Venture Studio, the Surack Family Foundation Create Studio and the Parkview Mirro Center for Research and Innovation Make Studio.
The sponsors fit perfectly with what Amp Lab is trying to accomplish, Sheppard said, adding their involvement isn’t necessarily limited to funding. For example, FWCS’ agreement with 3Rivers states the credit union will also provide financial literacy curriculum.
Sheppard described sponsors’ support as the sincerest form of endorsement.
“When you say, ‘The identity of my company and the identity of your organization belong together,’ that’s an amazing level of belief in our mission,” she said.