As head of the Associated Student Body at Grossmont High School in California, Jeff Meredith has cashed bad checks intended to pay for everything from students’ registration fees to yearbooks and gym lockers. Now, whenever parents or students walk into the building with their checkbooks drawn, he refers them to the school’s automated teller machine (ATM).

Tired of cutting student programs to cover the cost of bounced checks, Meredith copied a phone number off the cash dispenser inside his local 7-Eleven and placed a call. Weeks later, Grossmont became one of the first high schools in Southern California to provide students and parents with on-campus access to an ATM.

A fixture in malls and shopping centers, ATMs are slowly cropping up in schools, too, research suggests. According to a national survey from the Illinois-based marketing firm Teen Research Unlimited, 6 percent of students ages 12 to 19 reported seeing cash machines in their schools during the 2003 school year. Moreover, 17 percent of students in the same age group said they had their own ATM or debit cards, a five-percent increase from three years ago, according to researchers.

Aside from offering a convenience to students and parents in need of quick cash, proponents say the machines can be a real money-making proposition for schools struggling to make do amid shrinking budgets.

Meredith estimates Grossmont’s ATM did approximately 700 transactions during its first year in operation. With a service charge of $1.25 per transaction, he said, the school already is making headway in recouping the nearly $12,000 it spent to purchase the machine and its accompanying maintenance contract. Meredith expects the number of transactions to increase at least 30 percent this coming school year as both parents and students become more comfortable with the machine.

Schools in parts of Oregon and Washington also have begun experimenting with the technology.

At Gresham High School in Oregon, students and parents are charged $1 every time they slide their cards into the school’s ATM. The school reportedly is on pace to own the machine outright within two years, according to Daryl Grove, president of GoodVantage Resources, the company responsible for leasing the machine to Gresham.

Though Grove doesn’t bill the ATM as a fundraising tool per se, he says Gresham–with more than 1,800 students–is big enough to turn a profit off the number of transactions it completes.

More important, the machine gives parents and students one less excuse not to pay their bills, Grove said. “Schools have thousands of dollars owed to them,” he explained, conjuring up images of bookkeepers buried under stacks of folders chronicling students’ outstanding debts. Instead of holding transcripts and diplomas for ransom, he said, officials can simply point parents in the direction of the ATM.

According to Grossmont’s Meredith, parents and students also have found the machine useful during school-sponsored events such as dances and football games.

But not everyone sees an upside to the technology. Critics say putting ATMs in schools only increases the security risk for students and promotes rampant consumerism in an environment intended for learning.

Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, a nonprofit organization that assails the encroachment of commercialism in schools, called the practice “misguided” and said it suggests an environment in which administrators view students as “cash cows.”

“We’re old-fashioned,” Ruskin said. “We think you send students to school to learn how to read and write and think–not to shop.”

Initially, Meredith said, he heard grumbling from security guards and parents who questioned whether placing an ATM in the school would increase the number of thefts on campus. But that hasn’t been the case, he said.

For insurance purposes, the school is required to monitor the ATM with a security camera day and night. Administrators have yet to file a single grievance regarding theft or vandalism as a result of the ATM, Meredith added.

The test run reportedly has gone just as smoothly in Gresham. Though parents and students were apprehensive at first, Grove said he hasn’t received one complaint about safety since the machine was installed.

“It’s been a completely trouble-free and good experience,” he said, adding that school officials have yet to report any problems with the technology or the service so far.

To ensure that students can’t spend with reckless abandon, administrators can set “fast cash” and total daily withdrawal limits at lower levels. At Gresham, for example, money is dispensed in $10 denominations–not in 20s, as is common for machines installed at most banks.

Grove says no one is trying to make a quick buck off of students: “We’re not trying to merchandise these kids. Everybody understands that there is a little cost for convenience.”

If the goal is to turn a profit off the venture, Grove suggests that officials consider providing students with school-sponsored debit cards. Under this model, schools would sell the cards to students, enabling parents to preload a certain amount of money into each cardholder’s account for school-related purchases. Students then would be able to use the cards at school, just as they would use an ATM or credit card at the mall, he said–to purchase school supplies, buy lunch, and even pay outstanding debts. This way, students without personal checking or ATM accounts still can access the machine.

Parents who worry their children might spend the money unwisely would be linked to a password-protected web site, where they could keep an eye on students’ spending habits. To save schools the trouble of becoming financial institutions for their students, all of the record keeping can be done online through partnerships with local banks, Grove said.

These types of programs also can provide life lessons for students, he added. They “can help teach [students] money management” without going into debt, said Grove, who pointed out that college students often don’t have the same luxury.

Commercial Alert’s Ruskin doesn’t buy that theory. No matter how tight education budgets get, “the answer is not the put our kids up for sale,” he said. “We’re fleecing these kids [with surcharge fees]. Administrators are forgetting what schools are for.”

See these related links:

Gresham High School
http://ghs.gresham.k12.or.us

Grossmont High School
http://www.guhsd.net/Grossmont/grossmont.html

Teen Research Unlimited
http://www.teenresearch.com

Commercial Alert
http://www.commercialalert.org