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SCHOOL DISTRICTS FACE SOFT DRINKS WITH A HARD SELL

Carol Cibella was standing outside the Lancaster library, having just returned some magazines she borrowed, including one on parenting. It has a pretty interesting article, she says, on healthy school lunches for children.

It's hard to ignore the irony. Mrs. Cibella has two children in the Lancaster School District, which is talking about entering into a partnership with the Coca-Cola Co. that will likely result in the soft drink company's name popping up all around the schools.

It's not something she finds particularly appealing.

After all, she's been telling her kids for years that soda pop will rot their teeth, and that they shouldn't drink it. Now, the school district in which her 6- and 10-year-old are enrolled is poised to allow Coca-Cola's name to be displayed at a fieldhouse, on recycling boxes and on sports programs, among other things.

"I don't agree with this," Mrs. Cibella says. "My kids don't drink pop. It's not good for them. I only allow it as a treat. This (Cola advertising in the school district) is saying it's OK to drink pop and I don't think it is."

So far, most of the official talk about school districts entering into partnerships with big-name soft drink companies has been about money -- how much Coke and Pepsi are willing to help strapped school districts.

But money doesn't come without strings.

The Eden school district is taking $7,000 from Pepsi to buy two scoreboards. Pepsi isn't asking for any advertising. It just wants to quash the competition; Coca-Cola will no longer be sold in the school district. An interesting lesson in capitalism for Eden students.

In the Kenmore-Tonawanda school district, meanwhile, officials are hoping Pepsi or Coke will buy scoreboards -- about $11,000 -- for the new Kenmore West gymnasium. The winning company gets its logo plastered in the gym.

And in the Lancaster deal, Coke would pay $886,000 over 10 years. In return, Coke gets some advertising and exclusive "pouring rights." In other words, the Lancaster District becomes a Pepsi-free zone.

Lancaster Schools Superintendent Joseph L. Girardi offers assurances his district isn't "selling its soul to Coke."

"We are not going to give them run of our schools and say: 'You can put up signs anywhere,' " he says.

Details of the advertising agreement will be worked out later this week, but as of now, Girardi says, the scope is likely to include a Coke sign at the field house, on some recycling boxes and programs at athletic events.

As for the health aspects, Girardi agrees with Mrs. Cibella that soft drinks are not healthy. When his own children were growing up, Girardi recalls, soda was only allowed on special occasions.

But much of the soda being sold at school is for adults, or is available only at after-school functions, Girardi says.

Beyond that, he says advertising Coke in the schools is not tantamount to an endorsement.

"We are not forcing kids to drink Coke," he says.

What's more, Girardi adds, soda isn't the only drink Coca-Cola sells. There also are bottled water, sport drinks and juices.

Still, as Mrs. Cibella talks about the magazine article she read emphasizing healthy lunches, she can't help but wish it was orange juice -- or milk -- instead of soda being advertised on a school scoreboard.

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