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Deny sweet tooth craving for easy cash for schools

Kudos to a pair of Pasco County high schools for successfully negotiating the Pepsi challenge.

School advisory councils at Gulf High in New Port Richey and at Pasco High in Dade City rejected the offer of all-day soda machines on their campuses.

It is healthy thinking. Amid a national debate about adolescent obesity, public schools should try to limit their contribution to potential medical and dental problems.

Pasco High principal Pat Reedy explained his school's thinking to St. Petersburg Times staff writer Rebecca Catalanello this way: "Finances didn't even come into play. We're here for more than just revenues."

We wish others shared the philosophy, but six public high schools in Pasco County acted differently. They acquiesced and permitted students to buy sugary, caffeinated sodas throughout the day after the Pasco School Board left the matter up to the discretion of the individual schools. One school, Land O'Lakes High, has not decided if it will expand soft drink sales.

The district follows state guidelines, which, until 2003, barred the sale of carbonated products in high schools until one hour after the last lunch period. But the state rules changed last year, allowing daylong soda sales as long as noncarbonated fruit juice beverages are available.

Some school officials rationalized the decision last year, noting students were circumventing the vending machine timers and that other products with a high sugar content were available anyway.

The choice of the new generation, though, is colored by money. Pepsi's multimillion-dollar contract with the school district, approved in 1998, gives it exclusive sales on campuses in exchange for upfront fees, plus commissions. It is disconcerting to watch public schools shill access to youngsters. Pepsi gets the opportunity to lock up long-term, brand name loyalty among youthful consumers, its drinks serving as the exclusive beverages at vending machines, athletic events and school functions.

But, as stated here previously, it also is hard to argue with the district's use of the proceeds. The money finances school trips, athletic field renovations, computer equipment, scholarships and miscellaneous supplies like American flags, homework folders and student planners.

Turning to private-sector partnerships for funding has become a way of life for public schools because Florida has never been generous with education dollars. Pasco's school district trimmed its spending each of the past two years, including $10-million in the current budget year that resulted in fewer employees, the closing of the Energy and Marine Center, shorter sports schedules and higher athletic fees. Until the state funds education appropriately, Pepsi dollars will always be enticing.

It's worth noting consumption is not meeting expectations. Original projections by the district and Pepsi figured 100,000 cases to be sold in the contract's first year with a 6 percent annual growth rate, thereafter. Instead, just 54,000 cases were sold in the most recent year.

In other words, maybe students are smarter than they're given credit for.