The Madison School Board has clamped down on just who can and cannot advertise through the school district's backpack mail system, a change that has some parents feeling relieved - less "junk mail" for the recycling bin - and others worried they're missing out.
Tucked in a folder, backpack mail, which regularly heads home with Madison's elementary school students, still includes school announcements, notes from the teacher, field-trip permission slips and perhaps bills for unpaid lunch accounts. And plenty of ads for nonprofits such as the YMCA, Children's Theater of Madison and Madison Youth Choirs remain.
But gone are the fliers touting for-profit offerings, such as private tutoring, after-school care, music lessons, karate classes, ballet lessons and kid-friendly commercial gyms.
The policy change adopted last month stems from concerns that a growing amount of backpack mail was taking too much staff time, said School Board president Arlene Silveira.
Some educators also worry that parents who don't read English well might have trouble understanding the materials, or feel overwhelmed by them, causing crucial notes from school to be lost in the shuffle.
And students from low-income households may feel left out when they see the ads for activities their families can't afford, said Deborah Hoffman, principal of Lincoln Elementary School.
Teachers at Schenk Elementary have come to principal Emmett Durtschi in the past with concerns about a deluge of commercial fliers for things such as dance and music classes, Durtschi said.
At Schenk, office staff divide up district-approved fliers for teachers, and teachers then place them in student folders, said Durtschi. But the total work time is minimal, and it's too early in the school year to know if the policy will cut it down further, he said.
Items submitted for the district's backpack mail are screened by the administrative assistant in the district's public information office and, if necessary, by the district's legal department. All fliers must carry a disclaimer stating that the activity is not sponsored or endorsed by the school.
Established in the early 1990s as a way to connect schools with the community, the district's backpack mail system came under fire by the Madison-based Freedom From Religion Foundation in 2007 after a flier went home with 2,000 elementary students that read "Plant the Seeds of Faith in Jesus in Your Child at our Sunday school."
Art Rainwater, Madison superintendent at the time, defended the district's policy, which allowed distribution of materials as long as they served the interests of children, didn't violate the law, were deemed "appropriate" and didn't recruit students to attend activities outside their schools during the school day.
Under the new policy, materials from non-profits with a religious affiliation may be included as long as they follow district policy.
The revisions made this fall restrict the backpack mail pipeline to tax-exempt entities or a "non-income generating community group, and not a self-employed individual/contractor/consultant or for-profit entity seeking to advertise or to recruit participants/customers in connection with the service, activity or product offered by the person/entity."
Last year Diana Berryman, who has taught piano for 35 years and holds a master's degree in piano performance, began sending a simple flier through backpack mail advertising piano lessons for all levels, ages 5 and up. She gained nearly a dozen new students, "which is huge," she said.
But when she contacted the district this fall about sending out more fliers, she was told the policy had changed. Piano education is Berryman's livelihood, so her business is considered for-profit.
"There's no keyboard program in the schools. So why should they then withhold something like my fliers?" Berryman said. "I think it's a well-established fact that piano playing adds to the mental acumen of any child."
Ann Kohl-Re had just moved to Madison last year when she spied one of Berryman's fliers in her daughter's backpack mail from Thoreau Elementary. Ten-year-old Liliana began taking lessons with Berryman "and it turned out to be terrific for us," said Kohl-Re. "I didn't know how we would have found her otherwise."
"Last Friday my daughter came home from school with a fat pack of advertising from the YMCA and other stuff," said Kohl-Re. "So I find it odd that someone like Diana, who's a real gem but isn't a large-scale enterprise, can't advertise."
Franklin Elementary teacher Deb Schmidt found a way to cut down on backpack mail: parent volunteer Lake Barrett. Each Friday morning, Barrett, whose son is in Schmidt's class, shows up at Franklin to collate materials and arrange them in folders for the class's 20 students to take home to their parents.
Even before the policy changed, Barrett didn't mind the materials that came home in her son's folder, she said. Parents also can ask their child's teacher not to send home any nonschool items.
"It's probably not the environmentally friendly thing to say, but as a parent, (the fliers) give you an idea of what's going on" and what's available for students outside of class, Barrett said. "At this grade level, it's pretty benign."