Though it’s lacked the public punch of recent fundraising efforts in the Saugerties Central School District, a more subtle means of helping schools get what they need without aid of tight operating budgets went into effect late last year. Locals are being urged to make their Amazon.com purchases using a special link on the district’s website with a portion of each sale going back to the school. But some wonder if the program encourages the flight of local dollars that could be spent at Main Street businesses that, in turn, are part of the tax base that supports the school through property taxes.
The Amazon School Rewards fundraiser, set up by SLAM (Saving Library, Arts and Music), kicked off just prior to the busy holiday shopping season in November, and as of last week had raised nearly $700. Of the eventual proceeds, 60 percent has been earmarked by the SLAM committee for donation to the high school, with the other 40 percent split among the district’s four elementary schools.
“Last fall, some of our committee people were asking what was going to be our next fundraiser because there’s different things the district can’t purchase under austerity that perhaps a PTSA can provide,” said SLAM’s Sue Sachar, who works as a classroom aide in the junior high. “They wanted to keep the arts, library and music in people’s minds so we don’t lose track and possibly lose things again with every school budget that comes along.”
SLAM was fresh off a series of much more intensive fundraisers over the past couple of years, and Sachar said she was looking for a means of bringing in some money in a relatively passive way. That’s when she saw another school district using the Amazon program, and decided it might work in Saugerties, too.
“This is a program that you’re not spending any more money than you already do,” Sachar said. “I’m not asking anybody to shop there deliberately, only to remember us if they are shopping there.”
Sachar said it felt similar to a program the district is already using. Box Tops for Education offers fundraising incentives for elementary schools when students clip box tops from certain brands. Sachar said the district’s elementary schools average a combined $6,000 in fundraising each year through the program.
As for the Amazon program, well, they aren’t quite there yet. Since the link went live on November 20 of last year, there have been $10,512 in purchases, with $677.80 coming back to the district. That total comes from 405 items shipped, 234 of which were fulfilled directly by Amazon with the remainder coming from third party affiliates. Sachar said the purchases covered everything from netbooks to children’s DVDs, along with a host of other gift-related items. The program doesn’t pay out until June of this year.
Asked if she was concerned that by promoting a link to Amazon it was directing people to not shop locally, Sachar pointed out that the link to the committee’s information page on the program stressed that it only wanted people to use the link for things they were already planning on buying online.
“I couldn’t believe in one month time from November to the end of December, people had $6,500 they were purchasing for Christmas, money they weren’t spending locally,” Sachar said. “Why not let us get some of that cash back? Somebody else is going to get it, or Amazon is going to pocket the whole thing. Amazon is giving money away to schools, so why not Saugerties?”
But not everyone sees it that way. Brian Donohue, owner of Inquiring Minds in both Saugerties and New Paltz, said encouraging people to shop outside of the community might only offer short-term dividends.
“It definitely affects us and hurts us, and it doesn’t send the message to shop local,” he said. “Bottom line is, my tax dollars are supporting the schools and Amazon’s tax dollars are not. I’d love to be approached and asked if we could match it or come close, but no one really does that. It’s easier to put up a link. That’s been the demise of communities. It’s just so much easier to put up a link, and it’s really hurting Main Street.”
Sachar said she would always prefer to have people keep their money in the community, but said that the Amazon program is a means of bringing some money back that was already being spent elsewhere.
Inquiring Minds is still doing its part to try and keep people shopping locally, offering a 15 percent discount program to teachers in the district buying items for the classroom. Donohue said it’s a natural fit for a bookstore to do that.
“I don’t know what other stores would do it,” he said. “The bars won’t. It might be better business, but I don’t know that it would be a positive move.”
Donohue said he’s tried to engage the district in a more official capacity, but so far it hasn’t proven fruitful.
“Many years ago, we approached the school board to try to buy books and save them some money, but apparently they’re locked into a contract,” he said. “We don’t get the option of any of those dollars, which is really too bad.”
Superintendent Seth Turner could not be reached for this story.