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Photo policy unlikely to develop

District responds to man's call for change

POSTED: April 14, 2013 12:27 a.m.

Gabriel Arango said he’s disappointed with the Forsyth County school system’s response to his request last month that it revise the way photography contracts are handled.

“I hoped that they would really see what our point was and I just don’t think that they actually [did],” said Arango, owner of In & Out Photo in Cumming. “Their response misses what we were saying.”

The board’s response, signed after Thursday’s work session, shoots down the notion that parents aren’t notified of how the fundraising money photo companies provide is spent, specifically at the high school level.

The letter also dismissed as “simply not accurate” the notion that parents and students have no choice when choosing a senior portrait photographer.

Arango hired local attorney Dana Miles to speak on his behalf during the board’s meeting March 21. Neither man attended Thursday’s work session.

The school board currently has no policy for hiring or accepting bids from photographers. That task falls to each individual school.

Miles asked the board to require the schools to disclose how much extra money they receive through photo contracts and where they spend that funding.

Miles also maintained that the current contracts don’t offer parents a choice of which photographer they want to take their child’s school photo.

According to the school system’s response, the photography money is treated the same as any collected through the various school fundraisers. It goes to “enhance the program that each of our high schools can offer its students and the community.”

The letter goes on to note that “each of the school accounts is audited on an annual basis and information regarding these accounts is available to the public.”

Arango, who has previously held contracts with schools in the system, contends the photo companies charge more for their products. They’ll do so because in order to be competitive during the bidding process, they must offer a high percentage of profits toward the school as a fundraiser — 25 to 30 percent.

To get a better price, parents can go to a photographer outside the one hired by a school for school and senior portraits, but he said those photos aren’t allowed in yearbooks.

The system refuted the “no choice” contention. According to the letter, “Contracts with all of the high schools only require that the picture be taken by the chosen company in order for the student to appear in the yearbook, there is no requirement that anything be purchased by the student or parent.

“Parents are free to use a company of their choice to take senior portraits or to have other pictures made of their children.”

Arango disagrees. Parents may not be required to use a school’s contractor for portraits, but if they want their child to appear in the yearbook, they need to at least have the company take a photo.

In some cases, he said, contracted photography companies send proofs to parents and charge a fee if they aren’t returned.

So the burden falls on parents, many of whom only wanted their child’s photo to appear in the yearbook, to return the proofs to avoid costly charges.

Board member Kristin Morrissey, who has two children in county schools, confirmed that some companies operate that way.

“It’s a sales gimmick to get them to buy more pictures,” she said. “If they don’t return those proofs ... they get charged for them. That’s not right for me. I should be able to walk away and be done.”

Darla Light, who chairs the school board, said her experience as a parent of North Forsyth High students was different, adding that each school’s “principal needs to check into stuff like that.”

“It sounds to me like they picked a photographer that had this little gimmick and that maybe everybody just needs to be more careful when they pick a photographer,” Light said.

The board agreed the issue is not something over which the system should have oversight. Still, it asked Cindy Salloum, the district’s chief accountability officer and director of legal services, to urge all school principals to use caution.

After talking to all principals, Salloum noted they are flexible and not locked into contracts for more than a year. If a company does a good job, they will sign another contract. But if parents complain, principals will move onto the next firm.

“I can tell you from a principal’s chair, you don’t have time for the complaints, so you want a company that doesn’t bring these complaints,” Salloum said.

Arango said he will huddle with Miles next week to decide if he wants to pursue the issue further.

“I’m not advocating for just me,” he said. “I’m just the [person] who stood up and said something about it ... People just need to be aware that they’re getting taken advantage of."


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