PORT RICHEY — Tiffany Balay, whose family owns SpinNations Skating Center, has grown tired of watching Pasco schools take their skating fundraisers to her Tarpon Springs competitor, Astro Skate.
The kids and their business should remain in Pasco, supporting the tax base and local companies, Balay contends. "We need local support," she said.
She and her family have sent letters asking school district officials to make it so, proposing that the district steer school organizations toward local venues for their fundraisers.
When district leaders didn't respond to such requests, the Balays turned to Jack Mariano, a county commissioner who has made a mantra of supporting local businesses first.
"Is there any way you can bring this up to stop the outflow of Pasco County money?" SpinNations owner Jim Balay wrote to Mariano a week ago. "With the schools in a budget crunch, they have to realize that every tax dollar counts. Let me know if you can help."
Mariano quickly sent an e-mail to his fellow elected officials, urging them to look at the issue.
"The money that the county depends on comes from businesses," Mariano said. "For businesses to thrive we should try to do whatever we are doing in the county."
Mariano's missive spurred a lesson in free enterprise from superintendent Heather Fiorentino.
"As a conservative, I am a strong supporter of the free market system," Fiorentino wrote in her response to Mariano. "Our parent organizations are independent entities with the flexibility to make their own choices about which fundraising opportunities best meet their needs as they work to build public/private partnerships."
The district tries to help local businesses learn how to best compete for jobs with the schools, board chairwoman Joanne Hurley pointed out. But there's little chance of the board intervening to skew the results, said board member Steve Luikart.
"No way I'm going to go to a school and say, 'This is the fundraiser you have to do,' " Luikart said. "I don't see us getting involved in that."
Ultimately the schools and organizations look for the best deal. Mittye P. Locke Elementary School holds four skate parties a year for various causes, such as a fundraiser for the Odyssey of the Mind. After reviewing the options at several venues, Principal Adam Wolin picked Astro Skate.
SpinNations lets schools keep half of the money raised after the schools pay a $200 fee for the facility's costs. The schools can charge participants whatever amount they want.
Astro Skate only charges the skaters, not the school, and guarantees the school will net at least $1,000 — and potentially more, depending on how many people show up.
So if 200 people show up for an event that charges $7 each, a school would get $600 if it went to SpinNations and $1,000 if it had the same fundraiser at Astro Skate.
"The payback was more than the other places could offer," Wolin said. "As much financial support as we could get was the key factor."
Astro Skate owner Chris Maganias understands such thinking. It plays a big role when he's marketing his venue over the competition.
"Do it and make more than $1,000. Everybody is happy, and I'm happy, and you'll be back," Maganias said. Even if Astro Skate has to dip into its funds to guarantee a school gets $1,000, he said hosting such events lays the groundwork for skaters to return to his rink on their own.
Maganias said he also supports Pasco schools, even though he's on the other side of the county line. He is a business partner with a couple of schools and regularly sponsors Pasco Education Foundation events.
He can see why SpinNations wants the business he's getting.
"What would I do if someone was doing that to me?" he said. "I'd work harder."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.