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Sonoma County schools, which a quarter-century ago helped pioneer paper scrip fundraising with major retailers, now have started joining a new online service that raises money from electronic vouchers linked to local businesses.

Santa Rosa-based iiiTTT this fall began offering online vouchers for local restaurants, tire stores and other merchants. When the voucher is purchased, a portion of the amount goes to a designated school or other charity.

Already four school districts, one private school and more than 75 businesses have joined the company's program, said iiiTTT CEO Matt Stearn, formerly an owner in the Driven Raceway go-kart tracks in Rohnert Park and Fairfield. The schools typically receive between 3 and 5 percent of the price of each voucher.

A business owner and a school administrator both said the program provides a sensible way for proceeds from business sales to help finance school programs.

"Finally somebody has come up with something that is easy for the consumer, easy for the business," said Les McLea, co-owner of McLea's Tire & Automotive service. The company's five locations all accept the vouchers.

Robert Haley, superintendent of Cotati-Rohnert Park Schools, said some fundraisers can be incredibly time-consuming for parents. The online vouchers are easier to use because the main task involves simply spreading the word among the school community.

"It's very low-risk for the school district," he said.

In the late 1980s the county saw the genesis of a national program that offered school donations linked to business sales. School parents and church leaders at St. Vincent de Paul Church in Petaluma began a fundraising program by purchasing paper vouchers, or scrip, from nearby retailers.

The scrip, bought at a small discount, became such a successful fundraiser that the Diocese of Santa Rosa later formed the National Scrip Center. The center, which went on to become its own company, reported sales in 2000 of nearly $450 million and involved about 250 companies and 9,000 nonprofits nationwide.

However, the center operated on razor-thin profit margins and by 2004 was forced into bankruptcy.

Other approaches arose, including donations linked to purchases made under supermarket loyalty programs. One of the more popular methods involves Safeway, which last month stopped providing eScrip contributions when purchases are made with credit cards. Purchases made with registered debit cards and cash still can generate donations.

With the new program, consumers can go to iiiTTT.net and purchase a voucher via a desktop computer or mobile phone. They then can print out a voucher or keep it on the phone.

At the store or restaurant, the merchant scans a QR bar code and deducts the appropriate amount. Any unused portion remains in the user's account.

Participating school districts include Cotati-Rohnert Park, Windsor, Rincon Valley and Bennett Valley, as well as St. Rose School in Santa Rosa.

At McLea, the company pays 5 percent to the charity, 5 percent to iiiTTT and 2.5 percent for the credit card fees.

Stearn previously worked at such high-tech companies as Next Level Communications, Motorola and L3 Communications. He chose the company's name, which he pronounces "it," to represent three groups: the schools (or other charities), the businesses and the parents.

The online vouchers will introduce parents to local businesses, Stearn said. Such customers will know that with any purchase, "a portion could go to my kid's school."

McLea said both business owners and customers like the idea of doing something that benefits local students.

"Knowing that the schools are getting a chunk of that money is really what makes it all worth it for me," he said.

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