Want to Buy My Hippo?

Ideas include wrestling tournaments and ads on school buses.

March 21, 2011 -- Like many other U.S. school districts, the one in Hutto, Texas, north of Austin, is bracing for the deepest budget cuts since World War II.

About $4.8 billion in state aid to education in Texas is predicted to go poof in the next two years. What sets Hutto apart -- along with a few other districts across the country -- is its spirited response. It is cutting costs, of course. But Hutto also is experimenting with money-making schemes; some clever, some inspired, some wacky.

Superintendent Douglas Killian says proudly, "We're doing some weird stuff."

Take the hippo. According to local lore, a hippopotamus belonging to a traveling carnival once escaped in Hutto. Ever since, the school's sports teams have been known as the Hustlin' Hippos. Killian and his board are now trade-marking the teams' cute little hippo logo with an eye to licensing its use on apparel. Hey, if Lacoste can make a bundle with a crocodile, why not Hutto with a hippo?

Or take the buses: The school district has 43 big yellow buses, whose broad sides practically cry out for advertising. So, now they have it. Thanks to a contract Hutto signed with Alpha Media, a company that specializes in putting ads on school buses, the district stands to earn $40,000 in ad revenue this year and $60,000 a year moving forward.

The district accepts only age-appropriate advertisements and rejects any that have sexual or political content or that promote alcohol, tobacco, drugs or gambling.

Or take the vacant lot: The district owns a vacant lot, which it has put on the market, hoping to earn $1.3 million from the sale. Board President Doug Gaul admits, "There've been no expressions of interest yet."

Killian says, "We're having to be creative. We started talking about all this back in September. I met with all the district staff and teachers and asked them for ideas. They've been absolutely cooperative."

Suggestions included such cost-saving measures as removing the mini-refrigerators from classrooms and turning off school parking lot lights at night. These and other moves have resulted in lower utility costs.

From Naming Rights to 'Coyote Calling'

Killian says he has been getting phone calls from superintendents in other states looking to imitate Hutto's innovations or to try innovations of their own, some of which include:

"Wrap-around" advertising that covers, say, the entire surface of a bank of student lockers. The five schools of Minnesota's St. Francis school district get $230,000 a year from such ads, which are pitched to schools by such advertising companies as 4 Visual Media Group and School Media.

Naming rights. In Walled Lake, Mich., you can have a school's weight room named after you in exchange for a donation of $500,000. Your name on a middle school gymnasium will run you more like $1 million.

Coyote calling. Until last year, the town of Grady, N.M., raised money for its school's sports teams by sponsoring what it called a "coyote calling."

The "call," attended by armed ranchers and hunters, was intended to be lethal to any varmints responding. Only about $1,000 a year was raised from fees charged the shooters, but the money went a long way in a community with only 112 students.

Or it did, that is, until a tender-hearted fellow from cosmopolitan Des Moines moved into town. He denounced the calling as inhumane and for "stepping outside the boundaries of what a school should be doing for the community."

Superintendent Ted Trice declined to comment on the controversy when contacted by the Albuquerque Journal but did note that creative fundraising was a must for small districts.

Arrangements with wrestlers. A number of Minnesota school districts have had good success organizing exhibitions of professional wrestling in cooperation with the American Wrestling Federation of Elk River. The local business community sponsors the wrestlers' appearance, and the district's schools reap the revenue from sales of ticket and concessions. As Federation executive producer David Webber explained to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, "We saw the need. We're all looking at our own kids' schools and seeing programs being cut. It's kind of our little way of giving back."

Hutto Closing Grade School

Back in Hutto, superintendent Killian says the problem with his hippo-logo scheme and some others being tried by other school districts is that they don't pay off right away. "Most of these revenue streams," he says, "take a while to get established."

They need time to blossom. Meantime, though, the wolf is at the door (except in Grady).

Until Hutto's ship comes in, Killian is having to make tough economies, some personally painful. He's had to order, for example, the closing of the grade school that his own son, J.D., age 8, attends.

The little boy benefited there from special programs that helped him with his reading and speaking skills. "Yes," says Killian with regret, "We're closing it at the end of this school year. I told J.D. the other day, but he didn't quite get the concept. He's all right with it for now."