Rhode Island city considering ads on school buses

Posted Dec. 12, 2011, at 7:22 p.m.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Money is so tight in the Cranston School District that officials have had to scrap programs once considered untouchable, like freshman football, elementary music and middle school band.

Now, officials are contemplating an idea that was once considered just as unlikely: advertisements on the sides of school buses.

City leaders and education officials at the state’s third-largest district argue school bus advertisements are a better alternative to tax hikes or budget cuts and could raise hundreds of thousands of dollars. They’ve asked the state’s General Assembly to lift a longstanding ban on school bus advertisements. Seven states already allow the practice, and more are considering it after years of financial challenges wrought by the downturn.

“These cuts have been devastating,” said Cranston School Committee Chairwoman Andrea Iannazzi. “We’re not looking for tobacco, alcohol or any inappropriate advertisements. We are at a point where we have to consider any new revenue source that we can.”

But the thought of advertising junk food, fast food or video games raises concerns with some who said the ads won’t raise enough revenue to put a dent in the district’s deficit.

“We have this incredible childhood obesity problem and I don’t think we should be advertising potato chips, soda and all that stuff,” said City Councilman Steven Stycos, who was the only council member to vote against a recent resolution encouraging lawmakers to allow bus ads. “And I worry that once we allow advertisements, it would be very difficult to get them removed.”

Currently seven states allow advertisements on the sides of school buses, with New Jersey and Utah joining the list this year. Eight other states considered but ultimately rejected proposals to allow the ads last year. Similar legislation failed in Rhode Island in 2009 and 2010.

Sen. John Tassoni announced this month that he will introduce the legislation again when lawmakers return to the Statehouse in January.

“Maybe the third time is the charm,” said Tassoni, D-Smithfield. “If a few ads on school buses can save a program or sport, or help give students the best education possible, I think that’s an option that should be made available.”

Cranston officials said rough estimates indicate they could raise $75,000 annually by putting ads on the 90-bus fleet.

By comparison, the district earlier this year faced a deficit of $7 million that had accumulated from years of cost overruns.

“We’re talking about a drop in the bucket here,” said Josh Golin, associate director of the Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, which has lobbied against school bus ads across the nation. “What we tell school leaders is that there were good reasons why they didn’t do this 10 years ago. Those reasons are still valid today.”

Golin said school districts are effectively endorsing the products they would be advertising on the side of a school bus. Even though the ads would be aimed at other motorists and not allowed inside the school bus, Golin said the advertising would be the first thing students see when waiting for the bus and the last thing they see when dropped off at the end of the day.

Dallas-based Alpha Media is one of the only companies in the nation to focus solely on school bus ads. President and CEO Michael Beauchamp said the company works with districts to ensure advertisements on school buses are in keeping with standards set by local education officials.

In most cases, he said, the ads are for local businesses like dentists and real estate agents.

“In Texas we can’t have any advertisements for beer, cigarettes, religious groups or political causes,” he said. “The districts control what’s on the buses. They represent the community.”

Parent Sean Gately was so upset by the district’s decision to cancel elementary music programs that he and other parents began raising private funds to pay for after-school music classes. So far about 250 students have attended the classes, taught by music instructors recruited by the parents. The group has so far raised $26,000.

Gately said he would happily support advertisements on school buses if it meant the district could bring back music classes. He thinks recent budget cuts are hurting kids more than a toothpaste ad on the side of a bus ever could.

“Go to the public baseball field and you’ll see Jim’s Plumbing or whatever advertised in the outfield,” he said. “That doesn’t have a detrimental effect on a child’s psyche, does it?”

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