Cardboard currency: Box tops, etc. help BPS with educational expenses

To Phyllis Martin, spare change isn't nickels and dimes but rectangular bits of cardboard.

Martin is on a mission to save this cardboard for the betterment of Barnwell Primary School, where she works as an administration assistant and records clerk.

"People think I'm crazy. I'm the ‘Box Top Queen.' People have said, ‘You are obsessed about box tops,'" Martin said.

Martin's ‘obsession' has made Barnwell Primary School the leading school in South Carolina out of 1,411 schools in collecting the most box tops now - and in earning money for the school. Also BPS is ranked 74th in the nation out of 99,012 schools.

Martin would like to see BPS become No. 1 in the nation. Last year, that honor went to Navajo Lutheran Mission School in Rock Point, Ariz. for cashing in $31,195 worth of box tops.

The last check BPS received from General Mills last year was for $5,000. Martin doesn't know how much money the cardboard squares have equalled over the years. She estimates that some years, the school has gotten $10,000 to $15,000. General Mills cuts two checks each year to the participating schools. The maximum that the food corporation will give to a single school is $60,000, she said.

Martin's mission started in 1999 when she noted the value marker on the box top of a General Mills cereal about Box Tops for Education. Each marker is worth 10 cents. It's a simple process - cut the markers off the specially marked boxes; save them up and send them in. Besides saving box tops, a person needs to designate which school that General Mills credits the box tops to, Martin said. With the blessing of Jim Benson, the principal of the primary school in 1999, Martin started converting school parents and others into box top savers.

As the school records clerk, Martin gets a chance to promote the box tops program to parents when they register their children, she said.

"I've got parents hoarding these things. We are making money off these things," Martin said.

When appealing to parents to save box tops, Martin said it is just like picking up spare change on the sidewalk - because in a sense it is.

Martin attributes the success of the BPS box top program to two factors - contests and furniture.

"What got this going was furniture. Some of our own furniture (in the classrooms) is 30 years old," she said. "Our furniture never matched."

With the money from the box tops, the school bought new classroom furniture in bright primary colors which improved the looks of the classrooms and seemed to brighten the morale of the classes using it, she said.

"It looks good when you walk into a room," Martin said. "The furniture was the big thing and I think that's what got the parents interested."

Since then, box tops have bought BPS computers, folding tables and chairs, file cabinets and other classroom equipment. The BPS program buys permanent equipment and not supplies that are used up by the end of the school year, she said.

The other factor - the contests - got the children interested in saving box tops, she said.

"That has really built it up in our school. We have the contests and it encourages the children. We have different contests a month to keep it interesting," Martin said.

Contests can benefit the individual student, teachers or classrooms. Twice a year, the school has a party just for students who have saved 100 box tops or other "valuable trash" like old cell phones, empty inkjet printer cartridges or markers off Tyson food products or Domino's Pizza boxes.

Similar to the General Mills program, Domino's and Tyson offer rebates on saved markers that go toward education. Martin shops online for the vendor that pays the most for recycling ink cartridges. Prices can range from a dime to $3 for a used cartridge, she said.

Used cell phones can be recycled, or its components can be. The most Martin has gotten from a recycler for a phone is $45. The phones have to be in working order, not security locked, nor should they have any outstanding bills on its account. Bag phones are not accepted. Most phones turned in for recycling are under four years old, she said.

General Mills started the Box Tops for Education program in California in 1996 and expanded it nationally in 1998. Last year, the company broke the $250 million mark with the amount of money it has given to schools since it began the program. The foodstuffs and consumer goods maker has more than 90,000 schools representing kindergarten through eighth grade participating in the program, according to General Mills corporate data.

Now Martin has a school parent that spends two hours each weekday sorting through the box tops and other money-worth material the children bring in and crediting it to the appropriate child, classroom and teacher, she said.

Box tops make convenient fund-raisers since the markers are already on something - groceries - that people have to buy anyway, unlike some items schools try to market for raising funds, Martin said.