Schools Hit by Morality of Wal-Mart Guns Funding Charity

Since the Academy of New Media Middle School in Columbus, Ohio, opened in 2011, it has scraped by, with its principal cleaning toilets and a math teacher pressed into service as school nurse. Only $250,000 in gifts from the Walton Family Foundation keeps the 85-student charter school alive.

Now, in the aftermath of the Dec. 14 massacre of 26 school personnel and pupils in Newtown, Connecticut, New Media principal Andrew Sweigard said he’s worried that its angel may be tarnished. Walton family members own more than 48 percent of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the largest seller of guns in the U.S.

“It’s a dilemma,” Sweigard, 27, said in his cinderblock office, furnished with a worn carpet, torn chairs, and a snow shovel. “It’s a moral issue. Can we take funding from a company that is linked to a potential disaster in our school? Do we want to associate ourselves with guns?”

Sweigard’s quandary illustrates a growing tension, post-Newtown, between the Walton family’s educational giving and its primary source of income -- the retail giant that Sam Walton founded in 1962. The family’s foundation has given $312.9 million to charter schools since 1997, more than any other private donor.

Wal-Mart revenue from sales of guns and ammunition increased 76 percent and 30 percent, respectively, from April to October, the company said at an October analysts’ meeting.

Sold Out

Since Newtown, Dick’s Sporting Goods Inc. has suspended sales at its more than 500 stores of the military-style rifles of the type used in the Sandy Hook Elementary School carnage, a Dick’s spokesman said. About 1,200 of Wal-Mart’s almost 4,000 U.S. stores continue to sell them, often running out of stock due to customer demand.

Jared Lee Loughner, who shot 19 people in a Tucson, Arizona, supermarket parking lot in 2011 with a pistol, wounding U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords and killing six people including third-grader Christina-Taylor Green, bought his ammunition earlier that day at a Wal-Mart, according to Tom Peine, spokesman for the Pima County Sheriff’s Department.

Wal-Mart faces intensifying public pressure to halt sales of semi-automatic firearms, or what the gun industry calls “modern sporting rifles.” Almost 300,000 people have signed petitions calling on Wal-Mart to limit gun sales, according to New York-based corporate watchdog group

After initially declining to send a representative to Vice President Joe Biden’s Jan. 10 meeting to discuss gun control, company officials reversed course, saying they “underestimated the expectation to attend.”

School Choice

The Walton foundation didn’t respond to phone calls and e-mails. It supports charter schools because it wants to “infuse competitive pressure” into the education system “by increasing the quantity and quality of school choices available to parents, especially in low-income communities,” according to its website. Charter schools are privately run public schools that generally operate without many of the rules of traditional schools, such as union contracts.

Wal-Mart spokesman Kory Lundberg declined to address charter schools’ concerns specifically.

“We recognize there are a lot of views on this topic and many ideas being considered,” Lundberg said. “Over the years, we have been very purposeful about striking the right balance between serving our customers that are hunters and sportsmen and ensuring that we sell firearms in the most responsible manner possible.”

In Compliance

Wal-Mart doesn’t sell high-capacity magazines for military-style guns, Lundberg said. It doesn’t sell handguns in the continental U.S., and firearms aren’t available for purchase on the retailer’s website.

The company complies with eight of 10 criteria of the “Responsible Firearms Retailer Partnership,” including requirements that results of background checks must be received before sales and that firearms transactions be videotaped, Lundberg said. It doesn’t enforce provisions to flag buyers who had previously purchased guns from Wal-Mart that were used in crimes, he said.

Lundberg said the company has a “commitment to work toward implementing” all 10 points. Wal-Mart helped create the voluntary partnership with Mayors Against Illegal Guns, co-founded by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.

‘Puzzling’ Practice

Dozens of gun violence survivors -- including former Giffords staffer Pam Simon, whom Loughner shot in the chest and wrist -- signed a Jan. 9 letter urging Wal-Mart to follow the company’s 2004 pledge not to sell assault rifles. The company began selling them in 2011, Lundberg said.

“It is puzzling why a family-friendly store like Wal-Mart would sell such weapons just aisles away from the strollers and school supplies,” Simon and the other survivors wrote.

Three miles from a Wal-Mart store that sells semi-automatic weapons, the 8 Points Charter School in Jacksonville, Illinois, opened in 2011. It has about 100 students in grades five through eight. The Walton foundation made three gifts totaling $260,000 to the school, which has a budget of about $800,000.

While the foundation is a “friend to schools” and “made everything we did possible,” it’s “sad if they’re doing that on the backs of mentally ill people buying guns when they have no business buying guns,” said Bridget English, director of operations and family advocacy at 8 Points.

Bottom Line

“Wal-Mart does not think about the morals of it -- they think about the bottom line,” said English, 39. “They have a responsibility to get on board for legislation and reform.”

The school remains interested in applying for Walton foundation grants for innovation, she said.

Edwin Jones said he helped establish a Washington-based charter school for fifth-graders in 2007 with money from the Walton foundation. He regrets accepting the funds, he said in a telephone interview. Hope Academy closed within a year because of low enrollment.

“If I could turn back time, I would not have taken the Wal-Mart grant,” said the 62-year-old Jones, a Baptist pastor involved in the Respect DC Campaign, a union-backed group that opposes Wal-Mart’s labor practices. “What is Wal-Mart’s real concern? Kids who you say you care about -- in schools, malls or theaters -- are in danger.”

Educators’ Decisions

Other educational administrators said they’re glad to take Walton foundation funds. Firearms sales are “a decision for the shareowners,” said Richard Moreno, executive director of Charter School Services Corporation, a Fort Lauderdale-based organization that helps operate charter schools and whose umbrella group received more than $1.6 million from the Walton foundation in 2011.

“Our support from the Walton Family Foundation is separated from what the business is,” Moreno said.

Three members of the Walton family are on Wal-Mart’s 17-member board: Chairman Samuel Robson “Rob” Walton, Jim C. Walton and Gregory Penner -- the founder’s eldest son, youngest son and Rob Walton’s son-in-law, respectively.

The Walton Family Foundation -- which, like Wal-Mart, is based in Bentonville, Arkansas -- is the country’s 50th largest foundation, with about $1.3 billion in assets. Separately, Wal-Mart’s corporate foundation has about $35 million in assets. The Wal-Mart Foundation supports a variety of community groups and makes small grants, typically less than $1,000 apiece, to schools, including charter schools.

Divided Faculty

In Columbus, debate about Wal-Mart and the Walton family donations has divided the faculty. Located across from boarded-up apartments, the Academy of New Media received $30,000 from the Walton foundation in startup funds in 2010 and an additional $220,000 in 2011. The middle school has no security guard, and doors are unlocked.

Sweigard has met with his staff since the Newtown shootings to discuss updating the security policy. A Wal-Mart 17 miles away in Lewis Center, Ohio, sells military-style weapons. In Ohio, customers who pass a background check can buy an unlimited number of firearms without a waiting period.

While Sweigard has reservations about the Walton donations, he would not rule out applying for its funds again. “I would not limit our ability for extra income,” he said.

Financial Struggles

Two math teachers said the financially struggling school is in no position to pass them up. The charter receives less government funding than regular public schools, and teachers wonder if it will have adequate resources and enrollment to survive another academic year.

“How do you turn down money?” said Melissa Morris, 39, a math teacher and de-facto school nurse. “You can’t.”

Mike Stuckey, 31, a math teacher who also drives students home in his car, said he doesn’t own guns but supports Second Amendment rights. He has no problem with Wal-Mart’s gun sales, he said.

“It’s not up to me to criticize their financial decisions,” Stuckey said. “That’s part of running a business.”

Tiffany Martin, 38, whose 13-year-old son Kendall is an eighth-grader at New Media and a forward on its basketball team, likened the Walton foundation’s donations to the state lottery’s contributions to public education.

“They take an evil and give to something good and think it’s all forgiven,” Martin said.

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