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Businesses struggling in economy still trying to help local schools
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Many businesses regularly contribute to local schools to support student field trips, athletic programs and extracurricular activities. But this school year, more businesses admit they can’t give as much as they have in years past.

Whether the business is cars, insurance or peaches, profits are down, and so is charitable giving.

Hall County Superintendent Will Schofield said many athletic programs and extracurricular groups rely on contributions to keep programs afloat. But schools are aware times are tough, and they are adjusting requests accordingly.

The Hall County school board, for example, is discouraging out-of-state field trips that often send students out beating the bushes for sponsors.

"Of all the places I’ve lived, I’ve never lived in a more giving community," Schofield said of Hall County. "And I don’t mean just businesses, but giving individuals. But even giving people have limits."

Schofield said business donations aren’t enough to fund education, but they do provide a lot of the meaningful extras that school systems cannot afford.

"That small percentage turns into names and faces," he said.

Gainesville Superintendent Merrianne Dyer said schools in her system report cash donations are down slightly, but in-kind donations such as volunteer work, gift certificates, coupons and employee discounts offered by 50 local businesses have remained steady or increased.

"It just shows they value the connections with the schools," she said. "... It shows their commitment to the schools and to the children."

Dyer said in times like these, schools are trying to be sensitive and not ask for inappropriate contributions. When a child is in need, however, she said a business, faculty member or individual often steps up.

"There are so many people in our community that if they find out a child needs help, they will come forward. That’s one of the wonderful things about living here," she said.

Drew Turner, marketing director for the Oakwood Chick-fil-A, said most schools are not asking the company for more donations, but ask that the chicken restaurant maintain its relationships with local schools. He said Chick-fil-A continues to support schools by providing reward coupons for students and teachers, which allows the company to support schools without dramatically affecting its bottom line.

Turner said, however, he has noticed an increase in sporting teams who are looking for sponsors or fundraising options.

"It’s hard to tell if the economy has affected that, or if teams need more money to maintain the stuff that they do with rising costs," he said.

Butch Miller, manager and co-owner of Milton Martin Honda, said the car dealership went to Lakeview Academy, Gainesville and Hall County schools last fall and informed them they would not be able to maintain their donation levels.

"The resources are tighter," he said. "We’ve gone to all the charitable and philanthropic giving and said we’d still like to support you, but we’ll have to support you less monetarily or do a combination of volunteer work."

Miller said most schools have been extremely receptive.

"They had been told ‘no’ by so many people that when we said we were just reducing it, they were relieved. We just had to do less, that’s all there is to it," he said.

The dealership has maintained its revenue-to-charitable-giving ratio, but when sales are down, schools and other charities get less, too, Miller said.

Drew Echols, manager of Jaemor Farms, said his business supports schools in Gainesville as well as in Hall, Banks and Habersham counties. He said his business is feeling the weight of schools’ requests and is developing a policy to address the overload of contribution requests. Until now, any school that asked Echols for pumpkins or apples got them.

"We’re coming up with a plan to let folks know this is what’s going to qualify you to get in our check book or this is what is going to qualify you to get some apples," he said. "... The reason we’re coming up with a policy is because it’s really hard to give to one and not give to another."

He said owners of the farm also are considering how they can transition their support from athletics to academics.

"It’s really hard on the school system to be able to provide enough paper or crayons or glue, the simple things that kids need," he said. "I think in the future, we’re going to look at those type of things. We’re going to weigh out what’s important for that school."

He said about seven Hall or Habersham county schools have recently partnered with Jaemor Farms in maze days, which provide schools with 30 percent of the proceeds Jaemor makes on a specific day when people acknowledge their affiliated school at the gate of the farm’s corn maze. He said the partnership has been a win-win for schools and for the business.

Echols said individual schools recognize their limits in asking for donations and are appreciative of the help offered. But more schools are hitting up the farm, and Jaemor, though willing to provide, is having to establish a proper channel through which to route requests.

Although it’s a big responsibility, Echols said supporting local schools is just good business. He said he’s willing to do what he can.

"That’s the future of the county and the future of the community," he said. "Those are your future customers. That’s what it boils down to."