Money Schools Earn From Student Portraits Varies Widely - NBC4 Washington
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Money Schools Earn From Student Portraits Varies Widely

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    It's a world of sales pitches, cash commissions and signing bonuses. News4's Scott MacFarlane discovered the price of school photos vary widely from school to school, even within the same district, because of deals cut between the schools and private companies. (Published Monday, Feb. 22, 2016)

    The amounts of money local schools earn through the sale of student portraits varies widely, according to an investigation by the News4 I-Team.

    Similar-sized schools, often within the same school district, are cutting demonstratively different contracts with photography vendors, causing disparities and potentially burdensome work for school principals.

    The I-Team, through a review of school photography contacts in Virginia and Maryland, found some school principals cutting more lucrative deals than others. Some secured signing bonuses, while others negotiated more generous commissions. The I-Team found local school districts, which use school portraits as a fundraising tool for individual schools, allow individual school principals to make contract agreements with portrait photographers. Even within the same school district, those principals hire a series of a different photography companies, and are permitted to set their own prices for the pictures.

    Westland Middle:

    Ridgeview Middle:

    Forest Oak:

    Montgomery County Public Schools Materials Management Director Kathy Lazor said the system allows principals flexibility to offer whatever portrait packages they believe parents would prefer. But Lazor said the system can be burdensome for those principals.

    “Principals will get cold calls from companies that want the business,” Lazor said.

    Lazor said the district recently limited the number of contractors permitted to offer school portrait service in Montgomery County schools to four to reduce the number of sales calls to principals.

    Photography companies and schools share in the proceeds of school portraits in many local districts, according to the I-Team review. The money is set aside in a student activity fund in each local school in Montgomery County, Lazor said.

    “Those funds are specifically used for the student body,” she said.

    In several local school districts, contracts reviewed by the I-Team show variations in the percentage of school portrait funds offered to the schools as commission. In Frederick County Public Schools, the photography contract for Urbana Middle School guarantees the school $7 for each portrait sold to a student’s family. The contract written for Frederick High School guarantees the school $4,000 in proceeds from picture sales.

    In neighboring school districts, including Faquier County in Virginia and Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in Maryland, schools are offered a percentage of all proceeds as commission. Photography contracts for Adelphi Elementary School in Prince George’s County show the school negotiated a 40 percent commission of all school picture sales. Within the Montgomery County school district, two similar-size middle schools cut different deals. Forest Oak Middle secured 40 percent of portrait sales. Ridgeview Middle School negotiated a 30 percent commission.

    In other cases, the I-Team found some school principals negotiated signing bonuses to boost their revenue from picture sales. Hylton High School in Prince William County asked its photography contractor to fund a $1,200 scholarship for students, according to contracts. Bonnie Branch High School in Howard County asked photographers to offer a complimentary photo of school faculty.

    Freedom High School:

    Valley Elementary:

    Bonnie Branch:

    The I-Team’s review found LifeTouch Photography, which is headquartered in Minnesota, was the most frequently used photography contractor in the D.C. region. The company, which also has offices and employees based in Maryland and Virginia, acknowledges cutting different size contracts with neighboring schools.

    LifeTouch spokesman Kelvin Miller said the company uses signing bonuses and commission rates as incentives to win business from local school districts.

    “The packages vary in content and price depending on the level of the school,” he said. “We don’t always do signing bonuses, but it’s a tool for negotiation.”

    Miller said schools have the ability to raise prices for portraits to collect additional funds from the sales.

    “Schools have the prerogative of increasing costs to families,” he said. “We are proud to have earned the trust of families and schools coast to coast.”

    Montgomery County Public Schools said it is considering changes to its system for contracting school portraits to relieve the burden on principals and parents. Lazor said the district will consider setting a firm cap or limit on the cost of portraits sold to reduce the need for negotiations by the principals and minimize the differences in prices between neighboring schools.

    Reported by Scott MacFarlane. Produced by Rick Yarborough. Shot and edited by Jeff Piper.