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Wednesday, March 5, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Watchdogs venting over vending

Seattle Times staff reporter

The posse that showed up to "arrest" Coca-Cola and its soft-drink machines at Franklin High School yesterday never made it past the office.

But it achieved its goal of highlighting the Seattle School District's failure to fully enforce a 15-month-old policy that calls for the removal of advertising messages on vending machines.

Brita Butler-Wall, executive director of the Citizens' Campaign for Commercial-Free Schools (CCCS), said inspections of vending machines at 13 Seattle high schools and middle schools by members of her group Friday revealed "multiple violations" in every building except for Hamilton Middle School, where pop machines have been removed entirely.

The fronts or sides of vending machines in 12 schools, including Franklin, displayed the backlit names of Coca-Cola products in large letters. Those products include Coke, Sprite, Dasani, Powerade and Fruitopia.

"Clearly the School Board needs to communicate that this policy is not being enforced and steps need to be taken to enforce it," Butler-Wall said at a news conference on Franklin's front steps.

Bob Phillips, spokesman for Coca-Cola Enterprises, the bottling and distribution company that holds an exclusive contract with Seattle schools, said the job has been delayed by the need to special-order signs for the facades of some machines. He said he hoped it could be completed within the next two weeks.

"We think we've made a lot of progress," Phillips said. "We're working in good faith to do it as quickly as we can and we're trying to be responsive to what the school district has requested and be a good partner."

District spokesman Bill Southern said he did not think Coca-Cola was dragging its feet. "They moved as soon as we let them know what the new policy was."

Southern said the district is negotiating a possible extension of its five-year contract with Coca-Cola, which expires Aug. 31.

The School Board restricted advertising in November 2001 after a public campaign spearheaded by the CCCS. The new policy called for a phaseout of advertising-laden Channel One news programs, new signs on vending machines and other limits on commercialism.

The CCCS is pushing for enforcement of those rules and for a ban on the sale of junk food in public schools across the state.

When members of the activist group arrived at Franklin High yesterday to make their mock citizens' arrest, Principal John Jackson allowed them to meet the press on school property, but said, "As far as the activity of the arrest, maybe we could forgo that."

"It's your school," Butler-Wall responded.

Coca-Cola product advertisements have been removed from the fronts of the vending machines at Franklin, but not from the sides. Jackson said the advertising still needs to be "toned down."

Butler-Wall said there seemed to be some confusion among district administrators over responsibility for enforcing the commercialism policy. Superintendent Joseph Olchefske told CCCS representatives in January that acting financial director Steve Nielsen was responsible, Butler-Wall said, but Nielsen, in a subsequent meeting, said, "Oh, I am? That's news to me."

Nielsen could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com

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