A year ago when the Cherry Creek School District in Colorado was considering ways to fund a GPS tracking system so dispatchers would know the location of buses, officials asked, Why not use the buses themselves to generate the needed cash?
So the district, which serves five suburban cities near Denver, contracted with an advertising company for 3-foot by 5-foot print ads to be installed on the exterior of many of its 220 buses.
During the 2006-2007 school year, the district received $75,000 in ad revenue from the venture, a total that district officials hope will swell to at least $100,000 next year, says Richard Collier, executive director of facility support.
This year's funding will pay for the planned launch of the bus-tracking system over the next few years. The money will also let the district expand the number of buses with digital video recorders for monitoring student behavior, he says.
Some cash-strapped districts have wrestled with the question of whether or not to allow advertising in schools. The controversial idea has districts weighing the value of revenue gained against the potential intrusion of commercial interests into school life.
Another dilemma is ensuring that any ads are age-appropriate and health oriented in light of new wellness policies governing soft drinks, potato chips and sweets, which recently have been nearly eliminated from many school contracts to promote healthy lifestyles.
Critics of advertising say that it unethically takes advantage of a "captive audience" of children and runs contrary to traditional public educational values. "The purpose of education is to gain knowledge, acquire a love of learning," says Robert Weissman, managing director of Commercial Alert, a critic of ads. "Those are the processes that are interfered with and undermined by marketing messages. The role of the school in helping children and youth develop their own authentic personality is undermined by pervasive commercial influence."
Ads Outside the Bus
Not all states allow ads on buses, and those that do differ on whether they allow the ads inside or outside the buses.
Cherry Creek School District, which contracted with advertising company Media Advertising in Motion, has used bus ads from the U.S. Army, local flower nurseries, a local newspaper, local television news programs and restaurants.
The district considered the dilemma of introducing commercial elements into transportation but decided that exterior ads weren't intrusive. "In our case, it's more of a rolling billboard kind of thing, where the advertising is targeted at the community rather than kids inside the bus," says Collier, adding that the state of Colorado permits only exterior bus ads.
Paid ads have been placed on about 150 of 220 buses. Some of the other buses have either public service announcement ads or are special-ed buses, which because of their different shape and size are unable to host standard size ads.
Arizona-based Media Advertising in Motion-which has worked with districts in Arizona and Colorado and hopes to enter the California market soon-has placed more than 800 signs to date, according to company president Jim O'Connell.
The company typically offers districts 60 percent of the gross revenue, but this could rise over time, O'Connell says. Since entering the business about two years ago, the company has provided school districts with nearly $900,000 in revenue.
Cherry Creek carefully considers the ad content to ensure it is appropriate. Like many other districts using bus ads, Cherry Creek created a content review committee, which is made up of Collier, an assistant superintendent, a public information officer, the director of transportation and the director of the school district's foundation. The committee reviews each ad before it is installed on buses.
Because of the difficulty of writing criteria that will cover every potential advertisement, Cherry Creek's committee members rely more on a "we'll know it when we see it" approach, but they avoid tobacco, alcohol and fast food. The district has accepted ads from television stations promoting sports, weather and newscasts, but it has avoided ads for specific primetime television shows because of the risk that some community members might find them offensive.
The committee once rejected an ad that a local newspaper wanted to place on the buses promoting the paper. The ad featured a picture of one of the local newspaper's front pages. Although dominated by a local sports photo, the front page pictured also featured a banner liquor ad. In response to the district's feedback, the newspaper "provided an alternative ad that didn't have that, and everything was fine," Collier recalls.
Inside the Bus
Administrators in Michigan's Ypsilanti Public Schools, near Detroit, are looking to the interior of their fleet of buses for advertising revenue.
In the 2005-2006 school year the district began an association with advertising company InSight Media, which provides school districts with 11-inch by 25-inch ads that are placed above bus windows.
The roughly 4,000-student district sought out the additional revenue because of tough fiscal times tied to Michigan's poor economic climate, says district spokeswoman Emma Jackson. Like Cherry Creek, the Ypsilanti district established an ad content review board, which has approved ads for a health clinic, credit union and cell phone provider, she says.
InSight Media, which serves about eight school districts in Pennsylvania and Michigan, shares 40 percent of ad revenue with school districts, says president Brian Ungar. If districts contract out transportation, the contractor and district negotiate how to divide the 40 percent.
InSight Media asks districts to set up a committee to screen the ads. Credit unions, doctors, orthodontists and a cellular service provider are some of the company's advertisers.
The district so far has received less than $2,000 in ad revenue, but Jackson hopes the revenue will increase as advertisers become more aware of the option. "This is a new idea to Michigan, and I think you have to introduce the idea and let people chew on it a little bit," she says.
Despite the touted potential of bus advertising, many districts so far have not seen significant ad revenue, says Bob Riley, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services. "The people who sell it claim that it will be successful, but to this point, it has not been successful," he says.
Ungar says that many advertisers aren't yet educated about the bus ad option. "Our media has not been around long enough to become mainstream and therefore has some challenges because it's unproven according to some," he says. "All indications are that the media will, and does work."
Ungar stresses that ads can contain positive messages, such as a credit union encouraging students to save money.
In response to critics, Ungar notes that students are exposed to inappropriate ads on television, the Internet and on billboards that they can see anywhere else.
In contrast, Jackson says, the school bus ads have been well received by the community. "We just didn't hear a strong outcry against engaging in this contract," she says, "because I think most parents are just concerned about the state of our schools, and if they see and understand that any income coming in is going to help keep our programs and staff in place, that would be their preference."
The Ypsilanti school district experienced a confusing episode early last month when a bus inspector with the Michigan State Police mistakenly told the district that a state directive banned bus ads. The decision was reversed within days because no current policy prohibits the ads, according to Capt. Robert Powers, commander of the police's traffic safety division.
The Michigan Department of Education is developing guidelines regarding bus ads, but the guidelines are advisory and do not ban ads. The episode demonstrates why districts should carefully examine state policies before embarking on a bus advertising campaign.
Handling its Own Ads
In the 2006-2007 school year, the Colorado Springs School District 11-which in 1993 became the first district in the nation to implement school bus ads-took over the ad operation after the company that had previously handled it chose not to renew its contract. It was not making enough money, says district spokeswoman Elaine Naleski.
District advertising operations go beyond exterior bus ads to include the receipt of in-kind services, such as an electronic scoreboard that advertises several businesses that helped pay for the device. In exchange for thousands of dollars or in-kind contributions, the district also could offer ads in school publications, thank-you notices in newspapers, logos on the district's Web site, or announcements at stadiums.
The district offers four "partnerships levels," ranging from $1,500 to $12,000, offering sets of advertising and promotion opportunities. The partnerships provide the district about $180,000 a year, which goes toward musical instruments, field trips, art equipment and other items, says Naleski, who manages the partnership program at the district.
Although the district does not accept alcohol or tobacco ads, it has partnered with Domino's Pizza, whose logo can be seen on the district's Web site. Getting a logo on the site is for companies in the $12,000 partnership level.
The district, which has a wellness policy, accepted such partnerships because the ad revenue pays for items it could not otherwise have, Naleski says. "I think it would be great if school districts didn't have to do this and we had all the money we needed," she admits. "But, unfortunately, school districts don't have the money to do all those [things]."
The advertisers work with the school district because they want to be viewed as supporters of schools. "They like saying that they are a community partner with the school district," Naleski says.
Bus Radio (Audio Options)
The trend of advertising on buses extends not only to what students can see but also to what they hear.
This fall, students in the Cobb County School District near Atlanta will hear something different on the bus-music programming, with ads, specifically tailored to students riding the bus.
Massachusetts-based Bus Radio provides the DJ and music programming, which is interspersed with advertising and contests, to about 1,000 buses in 11 states. The company shares 5 percent of gross ad revenue with districts. It touts its ability to provide age-appropriate content that is a cleaner alternative to the ordinary broadcast stations that some bus drivers tune in to.
Popular FM stations broadcast music with inappropriate lyrics and age-unsuitable ads, says Bus Radio president Steven Shulman. "The whole idea of Bus Radio is to have a safe, enjoyable ride that students can be engaged in, so the students and parents don't have to worry about songs that are promiscuous [and] talking about carrying AK-47s or rolling with my gangsters," Shulman says.
Although it's called Bus Radio, the service doesn't involve radio transmissions. Instead, the company installs a galvanized steel computer on buses-resembling a normal AM/FM deck-that can receive digital music fi les via a mix of Wi-Fi, cellular and satellite transmissions. Every day, the computer on each bus downloads files of DJ banter, songs and ads.
The company offers separate programming to elementary, middle and high school students, catering to the musical tastes of each group. For a one-hour show, 44 minutes are for music and news, eight minutes are devoted to ads, six minutes to public service announcements and safety messages such as anti-bullying messages, and two minutes to contests featuring prizes like iTunes gift cards and video game consoles.
Shulman says the ads are from "socially responsible" advertisers. Some of the advertisers have marketed entertainment products such as movies, music or video games. Bus Radio has turned down ads for unhealthy foods, such as hamburgers and sugary candy, he says.
To ensure the appropriateness of such ads, Bus Radio has established its own content review board, including a child psychologist, superintendents, and District Administration's associate publisher George Halo. If a district deems an ad or song inappropriate for students, Bus Radio can program the computers on the buses not to play the off ending material, Shulman says.
Bus Radio touts other benefits of the service, including promoting better student behavior on the bus. Besides offering safety messages, the programming also leads to more silence and order as students sit and listen.
Riley of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services says this aspect of the product could have potential. "I think age-appropriate radio which includes both music and commentary that can hold students' interest could certainly improve student behavior," he says.
The devices also have GPS capabilities that allow districts to track any bus's location, allowing administrators to have end of day reports that can be used to check if a bus made it to stops on time or to determine the efficiency of certain routes, Shulman says.
The newer generation of Bus Radio devices also has an emergency panic button that, when pressed, will automatically call 911 or another designated number.
Ad revenue was not the reason the Cobb County School District signed a contract with Bus Radio in May. The 105,000- student district liked the assurance of clean radio programming for students, says Carroll Pitts, the executive director for student transportation.
The district's buses already have AM/FM systems, but the radio content, including DJ banter and song lyrics, were considered so coarse and inappropriate that about two years ago the district banned drivers from listening to the radio when students were present. "In the last few years, the music has gotten so bad that it wasn't good for students to listen to and parents started complaining," Pitts says.
The district, which will begin using Bus Radio this fall, received positive feedback from drivers and students about the programming during a trial period.
To ensure the ads meet district standards, the district has requested that it be provided a list ahead of time of the companies advertising. The district has also asked to see the music play list 30 days in advance in order to monitor lyrics. "I was satisfied with the type of sponsors that they would be using on Bus Radio," Pitts says.
When the Cherry Creek School District was entering the exterior bus ad market, it opted first to slowly roll out the ads on 24 buses to gauge community reaction before expanding it to other buses, Collier recalls.
"We went into it with a fairly conservative approach," he says. "We didn't want to flood all of our buses. We wanted to make sure that it was well-received by the community before we went too crazy."
The community seems to have accepted the ads as an additional source of revenue dollars. "And we haven't had any complaints about any of the ads that we've actually put on the buses," Collier adds.
Establishing a committee that can review the ads beforehand for content is key, he says.
The Colorado Springs School District 11 had to decide whether or not to run the operation in-house or find another company when the original advertising company did not renew its contract.
The district decided to run the operation in-house, but other districts may find it more fruitful to go with a company, given the time that district staff members must spend on coordinating ads. "It's hard when it's a part of our job, and your job is multifaceted," Naleski says. "You just have to have the time to work at it."
Ultimately, the Colorado Springs community appreciates the advertising partnerships as a creative and undemanding source of revenue needed to meet student needs. "They are glad we get our own money," she says. "They don't want us to raise their taxes."
Kevin Butler is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.