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No Truce in Champlain School's Battle of the Books 

Local Matters

BURLINGTON -- Guns don't belong in schools. And in the opinions of concerned parents Laurie Essig and Eric Hart, neither should the logos of companies that make them. General Dynamics, a Virginia-based weapons contractor with a division in Burlington, has been involved in recent litigation with parents and some school board members who feel the company should not openly brand products it donates to Burlington schools as part of the national "Reading is Fundamental" program.

In last Tuesday's school board meeting, talks with GD about removing their logo from books, bookmarks and pencils failed to result in an agreement. One outstanding issue: the line between "corporate charity" and "corporate branding."

Essig, one of the parents spearheading a petition against the company, charges that GD still refuses to remove their logos because the program allows them to "brand children and get good PR, not to give books -- it's not about charity for them."

Essig had a daughter reprimanded for questioning the motives of GD reps when they visited her classroom at Champlain and began handing out free books. Essig says the program sets up a "sick and twisted cycle" that "forces children to shake [GD employees'] hands and write them thank-you notes." Essig says that companies like General Dynamics profit from the war with taxpayers' money, so schools have to look to them for financial support -- a situation she calls "ironic and disturbing."

Hart, another Champlain School parent, has drafted an alternative policy in hopes the company would accept its suggestions and continue to support the school. "We didn't want to single out General Dynamics as a weapons company, we wanted the policy to be fair all across the board," Hart says. "My goal is not to say we don't want General Dynamics to make a contribution, but that we recognize them in more appropriate places, such as the school board website, in press releases, maybe something in the newspaper."

Hart suggests that even if the school board doesn't accept his proposal in its original form, it will at least spark movement in the right direction. The alternative is sobering. A General Dynamics official recently called the school board. Hart paraphrases: "He said if we didn't want their logos on the books, they knew of a 'community in North Carolina who really wants the money.'"

John Suttle, GD's director of communications, calls the program "very harmless." He says the logos in the books and on the pencils are a non-invasive recognition of their contributions to schools. "All they say is 'Supplied by General Dynamics' -- not 'buy our weapons'," he replies to the parents' arguments.

Suttle says putting the donor's name in the books is "common practice with other corporations" in the national "Reading Is Fundamental" program, which has been around since 1966. As far as any changes on the local level, Suttle warns, "If the school board does change policy, the real losers will be the children -- for some children, the books from the program are the only ones they have."

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