Friday, May 01 2009 05:43 PM

Tough economy: Schools try to make prom more affordable

BY COURTENAY EDELHART, Californian staff writer

Prom may be a social highlight of the school year, but it's not shimmering quite as brightly for local businesses.

Families hit hard by the recession are cutting back. Boys may don suits instead of tuxedos. Girls are wearing cocktail dresses instead of full-length designer gowns.

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Prom highlights

Arvin High School: $35 each, includes appetizers and drinks, at the Arvin Women's Club.

Kern Valley High School: $30 singles, $50 couples, includes appetizers and drinks, on campus.

Golden Valley High School: $65-$90, depending on time of purchase, includes dinner, at Marriott Hotel.

Highland High School: $35 singles, $65 couples, includes appetizers and drinks, at Masonic Temple.

Liberty High School: $25 each, includes appetizers and drinks, at DoubleTree Hotel.

South High School: $50 each, includes appetizers and drinks, at Bayou.

Taft Union High School: $25 each, includes appetizers and drinks, on campus.

West High School: $40 each, includes dinner.

Source: Officials at schools that responded to inquiries.

In especially hard-hit areas, ticket sales are off because students are forgoing prom entirely.

"We started feeling it several years ago," said Terrie Bernardin, assistant principal at West High School, where prom ticket sales have ranged from 250 to 300 for about three years running. That's down from 500 tickets in a typical year.

The school responded by trying to make prom more affordable. It put photos out to bid, for instance, passing along discounts won by bundling athletic and prom photos with one contractor.

And students and parents alike can earn money for yearbooks and prom by working games and other events throughout the year.

"We do everything we can to get our families involved," Bernardin said.

Taft Union High School says it's holding its prom on campus this year rather than paying for a swank hotel.

"It wasn't for financial reasons because the decision was made pretty far out before the economy got hit, but it's really lucky for us that things worked out the way they did," said Taft Union activities advisor Eric Newton.

Tickets this year are $25 per person, down from $35 per person or $60 per couple last year.

School fundraising has become "a lot more difficult," said Newton, who expects the recession will be top of mind as choices are made about next year.

Andie Hricik, a 17-year-old junior helping plan prom at Kern Valley High, didn't buy a dress at all last year. She borrowed one from a friend.

Hricik isn't sure yet what she'll wear this year.

But she doesn't feel short-changed that prom is on the school's tennis court instead of a fancy banquet hall.

"We're going to totally disguise it," she said.

Mother Nature will help. Students selected the theme ("Fly Me to the Moon") and the date (May 9) because there will be a full moon.

Impact on local business

Larry Jackson, owner of AJ's Tuxedo Junction, said prom tux rentals are soft, and he's getting a double whammy because his store already was hurting from the decision by some schools to emphasize a winter formal and convert proms to casual theme parties.

"In January, parents have just spent all this money on Christmas and don't want to spend even more on a winter formal," he said.

Jackson said he hasn't had to lay anyone off yet, but he's watching revenue closely.

Local limo company Limousine Scene says it is sold out this prom season, but two signs are ominous.

"What we call tire kicker calls are down," said general manager Jim Luff. "They call to find out how much a limo costs, decide it's too expensive and move on.

"We used to get hundreds of those calls before prom. This year, I'd say calls like that are down at least 40 percent."

The other red flag: credit cards. Customers have to put down $50 to reserve a car, and pay the balance a week before the event.

Most pay by phone with a credit card, but Luff has told far more students than usual to have their parents call him because the charge was rejected.

Big chance to splurge?

There is, though, a feeling among some that even as other cuts must be endured, prom is a singular event that can't be compromised.

Taft Union junior Courtney Houle, 17, shared an entree with her date before going to the prom March 28, but she didn't skimp on her dress. This was her third prom, and each year she has splurged a bit more on attire.

The first year Houle borrowed a dress. Last year she spent about $60 on one. This year's long black gown cost more than $100, an indulgence permitted even though her family recently purchased a new house.

"I just wanted something pretty," Houle said. "It was really elegant and classy."

It could be that precisely because the economy is so grim, parents want to give their teens a night of escape.

Liberty High School had record prom ticket sales of 758 this year.

"Our winter formal was down so we expected prom to be smaller, too," said activities director Brooke Slayton. "But we had our best year, ever. I have no idea why."

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