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PAYBACK - Race to benefit rich kids

The TD Banknorth company has announced that its annual race for charity, the Beach to Beacon 10K, will benefit the Cape Elizabeth Education Foundation, to the tune of $30,000 in cash, to help the town-specific foundation improve the education of kids in one of Maine's richest towns.

The race, which has a history of helping charities supporting Maine's young people, has in the past supported the Boys and Girls Clubs (supporting needy kids throughout the state), Riding To The Top (an agency providing horse-riding therapy for disabled children), Seeds of Peace (promoting peace in the Middle East), and Opportunity Farm (providing housing for at-risk and homeless young people).

Now it is turning its sights to those who are not in need - Cape Elizabeth's young people. This is a community where town officials regularly use the figure of $300,000 as the assessed value of an average home. It pays its superintendent more than $100,000 a year to oversee a school system with about 250 employees and around 2000 students.

The Cape Elizabeth Education Foundation was founded in 2001, and has already raised and donated more than $180,000 to individual teachers in town, and the school system in general, for projects including a $1000 subsidy for Cape High School theater students to travel to Edinburgh, Scotland, to perform in that city's annual Fringe Festival. Other donations have brought former Maine poet laureate Baron Wormser to town, and purchased Lego Mindstorm robot-building kits, as well as digital cameras, instructional software, artists' residencies, and teacher training, and one-off field trips or series of them.

The group's major initiatives have been a $50,000 "achievement center" at the high school, designed to give students extra help to meet the Maine Learning Results, as all school districts are required to do under Maine law; and a $52,150 two-part investment in extending into the high school the state's laptop-for-all-students initiative from the middle school (though many school districts continue have trouble paying for professionals and training to use the "free" equipment).

In the fall of 2004, the group conducted a phone-solicitation donation drive that raised $60,000.

TD Banknorth president Michael McNamara, who lives in Cape Elizabeth, says the organization is looked to as a model by other communities trying to support their public schools in a time of a state school-funding crunch.

McNamara also says the group is special because it represents wealthy parents not taking their kids out of the school system - though they could afford private-school tuitions - but instead working to support the public-school system.

"It certainly is a well-to-do community," McNamara says, but "not everybody in town is well-to-do." According to the US Census, 1.3 percent of Cape Elizabeth families were below the poverty line in 1999.

McNamara defends the donation, saying "We didn't see it as any departure from helping a good cause." He says TD Banknorth - and its predecessor, Peoples Heritage Bank - choose a race beneficiary from among about a dozen worthy groups each year, looking for a group the bank could help with its cash and with the publicity surrounding the race. Often, those groups are involved in a capital campaign and are seeking more exposure to potential donors.

While the Cape Education Foundation is trying to raise a $750,000 endowment fund, McNamara agrees that nearly everyone in town already knows about the organization, and says he doesn't expect major donors from elsewhere to materialize as a result of the race publicity.

"We weren't going out looking for a way to say 'thank you' to the people of Cape Elizabeth," McNamara says, while at the same time explaining that gratitude to the townspeople is the "spice in the sauce" that made the foundation look like an attractive beneficiary.

The community strongly supports the race, welcoming racers from around the world into local homes, volunteering on race day, and allowing most of the town's major roads to be closed on a summer weekend day.

McNamara says the race is trying "not to be stereotyped" as a supporter only of health and human-services charities for young people, and cites the company's saying "Shining light on Maine youth" as an inspiration. He says the bank supports "dozens, certainly, but probably hundreds" of local charities for people genuinely in need in greater Portland and throughout the state.

"We certainly weighed" a possible negative response to the announcement of the foundation as beneficiary, he says, but "this is public education. It's not a private school." The donation and publicity, he says, are "a nice way to say 'thank you.'"
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