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Advertisers catch the school bus

School districts desperate to plug budget holes are turning their buses into billboards for soft drinks, credit unions and car dealerships.

Advertisements have popped up on buses in Arizona and Massachusetts. New ones are set to appear in Michigan and Colorado.

Dozens more districts from Florida to Pennsylvania may join them.

“This will spread across the nation, because there's so much money that will come into schools as a result of doing this,” says Daniel Shearer, director of transportation at the Scottsdale Unified School District.

The Arizona city just outside Phoenix began displaying ads on the sides of its buses last December. Advertisers include real estate agencies, a local toy store and an ambulance company. The district anticipates the ads will bring in $300,000 this year and up to $900,000 in a few years.

But some consumer groups and parents are alarmed. They say America's children — already bombarded by ads — shouldn't become captive audiences on their way to and from school.

“It teaches children that … they're for sale,” says Gary Ruskin, executive director of the consumer group Commercial Alert. “They're just a bunch of sardines packed in a bus being sold to an advertiser.”

Such arguments haven't swayed many districts:

•The Agua Fria Union High School District in Arizona approved ads for the outsides of its buses in September.

•The Cherry Creek School District in the Denver area expects ads to go up early next year and will use the money to buy digital cameras and a global positioning system to improve bus safety.

•Bus-length ads appeared on the outsides of Medford buses in Massachusetts late last year. The school system charges advertisers about $5,000 a year per ad, Superintendent Roy Belson says.

•In Florida last year, the Miami-Dade County Public Schools and Palm Beach School District boards approved ads for the insides of their buses and are working out the details.

InSight Media of Pittsburgh is one of a handful of companies that specialize in school bus advertising. It is handling ads for schools in Ypsilanti, Mich., and pursuing contracts elsewhere in Michigan and with schools in the Pittsburgh area, says regional manager Shauli Zacks.

School districts that have jumped on the idea say they need the money.

“In Michigan, many of our school districts are struggling,” says Emma Jackson, spokeswoman for Ypsilanti Public Schools.

Jackson says Ypsilanti is the first in the state to sell bus advertisements. The first paid ads (for a local credit union) went up on Thursday. The 4,100-student district hopes to make $70,000 a year from bus ads, which will be placed above the inside windows, she says.

Colorado Springs School District 11 may have been the first in the nation to advertise on its buses when it started 14 years ago, says spokeswoman Elaine Naleski. “District 11 was in what I would call a financial crisis,” she says. “They couldn't pass a bond or any kind of tax increase.” Among the approximately 25 current advertisers are Coca-Cola and local pizza joints, she says.

Charlie Gauthier, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services, says most districts didn't rush to follow Colorado Springs for a variety of reasons, including regulations in some states prohibiting bus ads. Other districts, he says, feared they would get sued over the ad content.

Those educators who are now opting for bus ads say they're mindful of the potential for harm.

Scottsdale takes ads only from for-profit entities to avoid potentially controversial ads on political or religious topics from non-profit organizations. The district has created a committee of school administrators and lawyers to approve all ads. Like other districts, Scottsdale won't run ads for alcohol, tobacco, gambling or anything sexual.

And while some districts may consider accepting ads for fast food and sugary snacks, Scottsdale does not.

“We are staying away from food, especially fast food, because of the obesity problems in the schools,” Shearer says.

Critics argue that schools shouldn't have to sell ads to raise money.

“We are opposed to using children for commercial purposes,” says Nancy Cox, president of the Florida PTA.

But Ypsilanti's Jackson says students cannot be shielded from advertising, so why not display carefully screened ads that will benefit the district?

“You'd have to say you can't drive a certain street because there's a billboard that promotes an alcoholic beverage,” she says. “You'd have to strip the landscape of all advertising, whether it's on the side of a truck or a billboard.”


Emily Bazar, USA Today. December 27, 2005

Copyright © 2006 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.. All rights reserved.