Selling the schools

More evidence that our public/private balancing act is a little out of whack comes from surburban Detroit, where a school district has decided to sell naming rights to its buildings — including a new elementary school — to plug its faltering budget.

The Plymouth-Canton school board voted in June to consider naming rights, faced with drooping federal, state, and local support. But according to Susan Linn, co-founder of the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood, the potential revenues from the idea aren’t worth the cost:

“What this issue is, first of all, is the way we have abandoned public space and the notion of the public good….People don’t see the cost, and the cost is our values and the values we are passing onto children.”

It’s a struggle that cultural nonprofits are more than familiar with, although our struggle is a bit less incendiary. Philanthropists and corporations have become an essential part of the revenue mix, and naming rights are an important lure for their cash.

We certainly can’t ignore the revenue opportunity — in our cultural facilities or in other public endeavors. But somewhere in here is a useful conversation about financing and funding public goods, and the waning role of the ‘public’ in that effort.