St. Cloud will become the latest school district in Minnesota to tackle a discussion about advertising in schools. It’s a discussion Superintendent Bruce Watkins says he’d prefer not to have, but he said selling ads may be more acceptable than some of the budget reductions that might otherwise have to be made.
St. Francis became the first school district in Minnesota to sell advertising on lockers, walls and open spaces and made national news doing it. Becker, about 18 miles southeast of St. Cloud, approved a similar measure in December and is waiting for the first set of ads to be installed. Centennial in Circle Pines and Monticello school district, about 40 miles southeast of St. Cloud, looked at it but decided against it or to at least wait.
Now Watkins, who leads a district facing a budget shortfall of $1.5 million to $3 million for its 2011-2012 school year and another shortfall the following year, plans to bring the idea to the seven-member school board Wednesday. Twice the issue has popped up before the board’s finance committee without gaining much traction. “I think we wish it didn’t need to be a consideration,” Watkins said. “Under the best of circumstances, this wouldn’t be an option of any interest.” Still, Watkins said if it could save school programs or avoid teacher layoffs, it is worth a look. The board is scheduled to hear information from Watkins about the option.
In Becker, the school district has a contract with School Media of Coon Rapids for advertising on lockers, benches, floors, walls and open spaces, said Superintendent Steve Malone, who is in his first year. Becker is looking to close a $900,000 shortfall. The district is expected to receive $140,000 under the contract. “Given the financial crisis facing Minnesota public schools, it is important to seek creative solutions to maintain programs,” Malone said. The ads that will appear in all four Becker schools are limited to health and wellness topics. A committee of parents, teachers and administrators must approve every ad, Malone said.
St. Francis school district blazed the trail for advertising in schools when the school board approved it in October. The decision launched a story in Time magazine. Ads are in five Minnesota school districts and in schools in five states; schools in another seven states are expected to sign on, School Media co-founder Greg Meyer said. The recent budget struggles of schools have helped the 2-year old company grow. “That is why we started the company, to offset the cuts these school districts are needing to take,” Meyer said. Ads in schools are starting to show up more as schools look for ways to maintain programs and services with limited state and local tax dollars. Idaho and Utah are looking at allowing advertising on school buses.
In 1990, a similar debate took place when Channel One News, an in-school TV program, looked to get into 8,000 schools for a new program that included advertisements. In Monticello, school board members considered installing ads but decided to wait until it had a policy in place that would provide guidance, Superintendent Jim Johnson said. “You want to be careful of what type of advertising,” Johnson said. “Once you open your building up, if you don’t have any policy in place, where do you stop?” The concern is that the ads might make their way into classrooms, Johnson said.
St. Cloud school district has a policy for accepting advertising that was approved in 2005 and updated in 2008. It allows advertising in schools to pay for educational programs and activities. It must be nonintrusive, limited and meet community standards. Long-term contracts must be approved by the school board. School Media reaches agreements with school districts to sell ads to business that promote healthy lifestyles or educational, nutritional and wellness products. The amount of revenue generated depends on the percentage of school space where ads can be placed. One sample ad on the company’s website is for produce at Cub Foods. In its board room, Monticello has a set of lockers, which feature an ad for Underwater World at the Mall of America, that it used to show how ads might look.
“Our criteria is about as strict as it can come in advertising. You won’t see a bag of chips or Big Mac or bottles of soda and so forth. Our criteria is based on education,” Meyer said. “If kids are eating better, exercising, if they are taking care of themselves with these products, it is a pretty positive reflection of the community.” Centennial school district in Circle Pines last year rejected the idea on a 3-3 board vote, Superintendent Paul Stremick said. It would have brought between $200,000 and $300,000 into the school district, he said. The district is in the process of reducing its budget by $2.5 million.
“I don’t think anybody liked it. Nobody thought it was the best thing to do. It was definitely an option that needed to be considered. If everyone had their druthers they wouldn’t put advertising in schools,” Stremick said. “You need to weigh that against providing a quality education for the students. A couple hundred thousand (dollars) would be two or three teachers.” That’s the way Watkins sees it. He wants to make sure he explores every idea that could preserve staff positions and programs. “I think we will try every option we can find,” Watkins said.
By: Dave Aeikens – St Cloud Times