It used to be that a parent could walk into their child’s school and be reasonably sure of what it would look like–endless rows of identical metal lockers; a central office for students, staff and parents; classrooms endowed with industrial-looking desks, and of course, blackboards.
But that view could soon change at some of Dearborn Public Schools' 32 facilities if the Board of Education revises the district’s current advertising policy to allow advertising from local businesses inside school facilities, at its athletic fields, inside school buses or on its website. The policy could also expand and define guidelines for sponsorship and philanthropic publicity.
Though it’s not yet clear what a new advertising program may look like, the responsibility of setting advertising policy lies with the board, which recently agreed to have its policy committee take an in-depth look at the pros and cons of commercial ads in the schools.
This much is known: Advertising, via creating a connection between the schools and the business community, could be a catalyst for revenue in an era of state funding cutbacks.
But, with children receiving thousands of commercially-sponsored messages in a given day outside of school, is school an appropriate place to target students and their parents as consumers?
Some are leery of expanded advertising; but supporters–and other school districts–believe otherwise.
“Obviously, this is a discussion and a question that is not only brought here before you but it’s being brought before school district across our entire country,” said Dave Mustonen, the district’s communications manager. “It’s not a slam dunk that this is a ‘yes, we are going to do this,’ or ‘no, we are not.’ It’s a serious and important question that school districts have been dealing with and struggling with.”
Space for Sale
Advertising in schools in not a new concept; for several years and in many districts, advertisers have purchased ads in yearbooks and sometimes, in school newsletters and newspapers.
However, in this time of economic upheaval and massive cuts in public schools, districts are looking at non-traditional methods to bring in revenue to support programs. The district is expecting deficits in the coming years–potentially as much as $24 million–as expenditures
In a presentation put together by Mustonen, the scope of what could be done to increase ad revenue was laid out: Sponsorship opportunities for programs at the schools could come into play, as well as paid ad space, licensing agreements and publicity through philanthropy.
As part of Mustonen’s research, the district surveyed several schools. Of the 16 responding districts, 10 allowed advertising of some sort. An aggressive program would likely bring in about $100,000 for the first year. And, to make the program work well, the district would need to either subcontract with an outside advertising firm, hire an ad manager, or turn over the responsibility of the program to the Dearborn Education Foundation.
Advertising could include small ads on the district’s website or display ads or banners in the schools or at its athletic fields, even in conspicuous places like on student lockers. Or, the program could limit where ads can be placed.
“There are many ways this can move forward, but ultimately, any program is going to be philosophical question,” Mustonen said.
Mustonen added that any program likely to be implemented in such a way that students are not bombarded with the advertising.
Pros and Cons
Between television, computers, cell phones and other electronic devices, children are privy to hundreds of commercial messages in a given day.
For that reason, Board President Mary Lane was skeptical of having an advertising program.
“I really feel pretty torn to see school districts advertising for students,” she said. “It’s a limited pie for students, and advertising dollars is wasted money to me. While we fortunately don’t have to do that, I have a lot of qualms when there’s a day when a student comes home with a textbook that says, ‘Geography brought to you by XYZ Corp.,’ or, ‘This teacher brought to you by (a company).’”
The issue of advertising, which has grown exponentially as districts have struggled with their finances, has become controversial–but not as much as one would think, said Frank Ruggerillo, the communications director of Plymouth-Canton Community Schools.
“We just introduced our program, and I haven’t had one complaint from parents,” he said. “I think parents understand that school districts are trying to find ways to generate revenue."
Ruggerillo added that the schools limited their advertising to its website, and that they have strict controls on appropriateness. In the relatively short time the program has been in effect, it has generated $20,000 for PCCS.
But, not everyone thinks ads in schools are a good idea. Josh Golin, the associate director of the Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, said schools should be an advertising-free zone.
“I completely sympathize with the financial situation many schools are facing, but advertising is not the answer,” he said. “There are too many ways that a student can be captive to these messages; we’re seeing them go inside school buses, and children just can’t turn that off.
"Students need some time where they don’t have to deal with advertising.”
A New Plan
Trustee Aimee Blackburn said the board needs to institute a plan–whether it be permitting or limiting ads–that is consistent.
“I think that ignoring it and not addressing the policy isn’t dealing with it,” she said. “I would suggest that we need to put a committee of parents, board members (and) staff to discuss the different steps. If we’re going to do the advertising or continue to the advertising we’re already doing, what kind of limitations are we going to have?”
The board’s policy committee will meet to discuss advertising, and bring recommendations back to the board to be enacted.