IRVINE — Orange County's financial crisis reached out and touched an Irvine woman Friday, leaving her and a phone company outraged over a middle school's plan for picking up extra cash in the wake of a budget crunch.
Tina Bartel said her seventh-grade daughter, Jennoah, came home from school this week to tell her excitedly, "Mom, I need our phone bill, I need our phone bill for school!"
Little did Jennoah know that her request would leave her mother infuriated and also anger the American Telephone & Telegraph Co., which on Friday accused the Irvine Unified School District of using students at South Lake Middle School in a marketing scheme without its permission.
In efforts to loosen the grip of the budget crisis, area schools are turning increasingly to new and innovative ways of fund raising--but this way has angered both Bartel and AT&T, which applauded the mother's decision to remove her daughter from school Friday.
In a math exercise, 12-year-old Jennoah and her classmates were asked to examine their parents' long-distance rates, and then--if Mom or Dad provided the signature--convert the family's long-distance carrier to AT&T.
In return, the middle school's Parent Teacher Student Assn. would receive a 10% share of the family's long-distance payments to AT&T each month. In other words, if the parents' long-distance bills for May were $200, South Lake would receive $20.
School officials deny any wrongdoing, saying the concept was approved without objection by its 275-member PTSA and follows the fund-raising guidelines of both its national PTA and the Irvine Unified School District.
Judy Cunningham, the school's principal and one of the plan's most enthusiastic backers, called it the type of "desperate" measure that schools across the county are being forced to consider in the wake of the county bond crisis.
"We have no money. No one has any money," Cunningham said. "Our money is all but frozen. What monies we have are being used only for absolute necessities, like toilet paper."
Cunningham said that only Bartel had objected and that "every other parent in the school seems to think it is a wonderful idea. The source of the problem is one parent and one parent only."
Students had been assigned homework to be turned in on Friday that involved them using their parents' telephone bill to figure out such statistical brainteasers as mean, median and mode using their long-distance rates.
Tina Bartel described her initial impression of seeing the assignment as a "very good idea"--a way of imparting the complexities of statistical mathematics with a tangible, real-life example.
She felt that way, she said, until she turned to the back page of the assignment and found a form requesting that she convert the family's long-distance service to AT&T.
"I have found this thinly veiled attempt to use my child as a long-distance solicitor totally unacceptable," Bartel said.
So, she pulled her daughter out of school Friday and demanded that the school district issue an apology guaranteeing that such fund-raising efforts never take place again. Since no apology came on Friday, she said, her daughter will also stay home on Monday.
AT&T officials reacted with shock Friday to the homework assignment and said the company had no knowledge that its name was being used in what one spokesman called an "egregious, exploitative" way.
But Principal Cunningham said the school did have AT&T's permission. Jack Palmer, the head of CoVenture Financial Insurance Services--which is acting as corporate middleman in the venture, along with UniNet Inc.--obtained clearance from AT&T before presenting the plan to the school, Cunningham said.
Richard Shean, a spokesman for CoVenture, said he had spoken on Friday with AT&T spokesman Mike Pruyn, whom he quoted as saying: "Sounds like a win-win situation; I don't have a problem with it."
CoVenture's Palmer could not be reached for comment, but AT&T officials at the firm's corporate headquarters denied giving their consent.
"We don't endorse it. We have nothing to do with it," said Pruyn, who is based in New Jersey. "We certainly support education, through philanthropy and the efforts of our employees, but not through a percentage of our long-distance fees going to a school program. That's a gross misconception of the role our company cares to play in American life."
Karen Way, a spokeswoman for the company's legal department, said that "anyone using our name in such a venture must agree to be very careful with how they use the AT&T name. They must not in any way pretend that they are AT&T or agents of AT&T.
"As a result, we as a company have in the past taken legal action against companies that misrepresent us in a particularly egregious way."