Throwing Money at the Problem? Exxon Gives $15,000 to School Near Oil Spill

The multibillion-dollar corporation has decided to pay for a local elementary school’s end-of-exam party.

Discharged crude oil is removed by vacuum truck after an Exxon pipeline ruptured in North Woods Subdivision in Mayflower, Arkansas, on April 5, 2013. Exxon is working to clean up the 5,000-barrel spill while also trying to win over the community with its checkbook. (Photo: Reuters/EPA/Handout)

Suzi Parker is a journalist whose work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

Kellie Tollison does not want ExxonMobil paying for a party to celebrate the end of state exams at her son’s elementary school.

“It is as if they are celebrating their oil spill with a party because the money was donated from Exxon,” Tollison told TakePart. “If they were giving it for educational purposes—new library books, new computers—that would be understandable because all schools in the United States would welcome donations for stuff like that.”

Tollison lives in Mayflower, Arkansas, where, on March 29, the Pegasus pipeline, owned by ExxonMobil, ruptured in a subdivision. An estimated 147,000 to 210,000 gallons of heavy tar sands oil leaked in the town of 2,200 people. Twenty-two residences were evacuated in what the Environmental Protection Agency has declared a “major spill.” Clean-up operations are ongoing.

ExxonMobil gave $15,000 to the Mayflower Elementary School’s Parent Teacher Organization this week, after a PTO parent asked the company if they would donate water or supplies to the party. The elementary school is less than a mile and half from the pipeline's ruture, and some students have reported being sick from the oil fumes.

The donation, School Superintendent John Gray told a local television station, is “a positive thing.” He said, “I know this whole procedure was an inconvenience or a nuisance to that school. A lot of those children were affected negatively, some directly, some indirectly.”

In a comment to TakePart, Kim Jordan, a media relations advisor for ExxonMobil, said, “ExxonMobil donated $15,000 to the elementary school after the PTO requested the money to help pay for a party following the students’ testing period.”

Corporations often donate money to schools, and in turn, schools seek out donations, from money to school supplies. It is not illegal in Arkansas for schools to take corporate donations. Around the country, Some schools have even asked local businesses to sponsor classrooms. In return, the businesses received promotion on the school marquees.

Many school districts in the United States have fought hard to keep corporate advertising and corporate influence out of their schools. Some state legislatures have even enacted legislation to prevent corporate advertising on school buses.

In this case, however, ExxonMobil wasn’t a community partner until the oil spill. But now they are trying to become one, says Ernest DelBuono, a senior vice president and the crisis practice chair at LEVICK, a strategic communications firm in Washington, D.C.

“All of these big companies have philanthropy and community programs where they are based,” DelBuono told TakePart. “In effect, ExxonMobil created an infrastructure by creating a major oil spill. They probably know all the servers at the restaurant, people at the hardware store so they are developing relationships. They are becoming part of the community here and feeling like they want to give something back.”

I was offended deeply when I heard about the donation being made—whatever the intended purpose/use is.

But it angers Emily Lane, a local environmentalist and assistant director of ArkansasFracking.org. 

“I was offended deeply when I heard about the donation being made—whatever the intended purpose/use is,” Lane told TakePart. “I commented on a Facebook post about it, that I was ashamed that we have sold our children’s health for $15,000—about the amount I would pay for a brand new Hyundai.”

Genieve Long, a Mayflower parent who has four children in the elementary school, says she doesn’t have a problem with the money if it wasn’t a payoff.

“As long as they didn’t sign any paper work or are legally bound to Exxon, as long as it wasn’t a payoff by the company, I don’t have a problem with it,” she said.

Both Long and Tollison say that if ExxonMobil is going to give money, they would prefer the multibillion-dollar company to donate books and computers instead of party supplies.

Tollison says that many of the books in the school library are old and have been repaired in order for students to keep reading them. She said that at the start of last year’s school year, parents were asked to buy supplies for teachers.

“Parents had to help a lot of teachers update their school supplies at the start of the school year,” Tollison said. “I had to get my five-year-old some dry erase markers for the teacher to use. If Exxon is donating this money, maybe they could stock up on some of those for the teachers.”

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