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Towns turn to lemonade stand, surplus auctions to raise money

Posted July 20, 2010 06:33 PM

By Taryn Plumb, Globe Correspondent | July 11, 2010

From the front yard of a house on a winding river road, they hollered and waved, brandished colorful signs, and arranged themselves in acrobatic cheerleader formations.

When cars finally pulled over, the elementary schoolchildren offered windowside service of cups of lemonade and homemade cookies, 25 cents each.

There is no more quintessential summer scene than a lemonade stand. It is the makeshift enter prise of generations.

But in this case, the goal was grander than pocket change: It was an attempt to save the jobs of about three dozen teachers in the Pentucket Regional School District, one sugary cup at a time.

“First, we wanted to buy this new toy, but then we found out about the budget,’’ said Merrimac fifth-grader Sterling Seymour, whose school district is facing a shortfall of roughly $1.3 million. “We decided to donate all the money to the schools to help.’’

When it comes to balancing today’s budget, cuts are frequent and so are override attempts. And increased meals and hotel taxes and new fees for school activities from field trips to music and sports are a common occurrence.

Desperation also leads to creativity. Some schools and municipalities — and schoolchildren, too — are exploring unusual ways to raise money for education.

Beyond the lemonade stand, there are many other revenue-raising initiatives around the region. Newburyport is renovating a City Hall kitchen to be rented out for events; the Manchester-Essex Regional School Disrict is considering selling its buses (valued at $60,000, according to school documents); and Rowley is looking to sell its former library. Other cities and towns — including Winthrop, West Newbury, and Haverhill — are explor ing the option of leasing town-owned space for cell towers.

In some cases, ideas start at the grass roots. When the Seymour and Dickens children of Merrimac heard about drastic staff and budget cuts facing their schools, they spent a weekend on their grandparent’s lawn selling sweet shots of lemonade.

But instead of the usual dollar here and dollar there, they raised an impressive $187.

“That’s a lot of quarter-cups worth of lemonade,’’ said Tracy Dickens, whose daughters Janet and Kinneal ran the stand with their cousin Sterling and her siblings.

Still, gallons and gallons of the sweet summertime drink would be needed to fill in a roughly $1.32 million deficit.

To balance the budget of the Pentucket Regional School District, overrides totaling $787,380 were proposed in the three towns in the district: Groveland, Merrimac, and West Newbury. But Groveland and Merrimac voted against overrides, rejecting the school budget and sending it back to the table. West Newbury approved a $170,000 override, but it will be sent back to voters in the fall for the rare opportunity for an underride.

Added to that is a projected $530,000 decrease in state aid, requiring more than $1.3 million in cuts, bringing the budget to $32.6 million, according to Superintendent Paul Livingston.

The result is shifts in personnel and the loss of 33 teachers and staff in all school departments.

There has been some talk of fund-raising, Livingston said, and other revenue-raising efforts, such as technology and alumni support groups and a district regional foundation, are being considered.

The lemonade money, meanwhile, will be presented to the School Committee as a gift, he said.

It was “really just to save the teachers’ jobs, because I like all the teachers,’’ said third-grader Janet Dickens, who waved signs reading “Lemonade! Help Save Teachers’ Jobs!’’ and “Help Get Teachers’ Jobs Back!’’

“You can earn lots of money from lemonade, and it’s a nice thing to do,’’ said Janet.

Calling the effort cute and sweet, her mother said, “I think they thought maybe they’d save a teacher or two.’’

Mom had a few ideas of her own, including calling Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres (unfortunately, no response) and buying lottery tickets.

“They did their best,’’ she said of her daughters’ efforts. “We were proud of them.’’

Although the lemonade stand might not come close to solving the district’s problems, the effort is commendable, Livingston said.

“This was the first student-motivated effort to help out.’’ he said. It’s a learning exper ience, he added, “something they’ll remem ber, something we’ll remem ber.’’

Other communities are on a learning curve of their own. Newbury is tinkering with getting sponsors for town property and equipment, including vehicles, the Town Hall, transfer station, Fire Department, and Plum Island. Inspired by the state’s Adopt-A-Highway program, the town is seeking groups, businesses, or individuals willing to maintain a certain site or piece of equipment or to donate money for the purpose.

Only one group has signed up so far, according to building inspector Sam Joslin: the Newbury Democratic Town Committee. The group donated $500 and will take over maintenance of property at the corner of Hanover Street and Route 1.

If the idea takes off, “It’ll take some burden off the Highway Depart ment,’’ Joslin said. “Right now, they’re struggling.’’

That’s because the department’s parks maintenance budget, funded at $40,000 just two years ago, was eliminated. The town simply could not afford it anymore, according to Town Administrator Chuck Kostro. Public Works still maintains the areas on a roughly weekly basis, Kostro explained, although the work is now paid for by the expense budget, with assistance from the town’s Recreation Committee.

When asked if the sponsorship is too commercial, Joslin explained that the 18-inch-by-18-inch signs should not be an eyesore, because they are reasonably sized and feature the Newbury seal and colors.

“We’re not looking to have extras or goldplate anything,’’ he said. “We’re just trying to get back to the bare minimum.’’

The town has been going lean. Its fiscal 2011 budget, at $17.1 million, represents just a .3 percent increase over last year. Getting there required eliminating a cost-of-living increase for employees, cutting the Plum Island lifeguard force, and shutting off 20 percent of streetlights.

“We’re constantly cutting year after year,’’ Kostro said. “We’re trying a whole slew of different things, as I’m sure other communities are.’’

Salem, meanwhile, is attempting to lease the former Dr. William Mack House at Mack Park. There have not been any takers yet for the 4,250-square-foot house, according to acting purchasing agent Tom Watkins, but once there are, the lease could bring in an additional $750 a month.

In another endeavor, the city chose to forgo the usual channels for selling surplus property. Eight vehicles — two dump trucks, three wheelchair vans, a pickup truck, and two Ford Crown Victoria sedans — were recently sold through the website www.municibid.com.

Going through the usual method of selling surplus, listing locally, the city would have made $100 or $200 for each item, said Watkins. Instead, $5,967 was generated on the website for the general fund.

“It’s a good way to get better pricing, because we’re reaching a much broader audience,’’ Watkins explained, adding that bids came from as far away as Pennsylvania.

And with the exploration into fund-raising come new lessons.

“It’s really good to help, and it’s not always about you,’’ said Seymour, the lemonade hawker who is a student at the Helen R. Donaghue School.

“Think about others more than yourself. Always think about helping.’’

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