April 3, 2011

Wichita schools may seek more corporate sponsors to fill budget gaps

The walls of Northwest High School's gym feature ads for law firms, carpet cleaners, fast-food restaurants and a store that sells prom dresses. Television screens in the commons area, where students eat lunch, show commercials for a local video-game store along with bowling team photos, weather forecasts and reminders of school picture day.

The walls of Northwest High School's gym feature ads for law firms, carpet cleaners, fast-food restaurants and a store that sells prom dresses. Television screens in the commons area, where students eat lunch, show commercials for a local video-game store along with bowling team photos, weather forecasts and reminders of school picture day.

"You get used to it after a while," said Beth McMahan, a senior at Northwest. "It's just another commercial."

Corporate logos may become more prevalent in schools as district leaders, facing shortfalls of $50 million or more over the next two years, look for ways to supplement their cash-strapped budgets.

"Who knows where we may have to go in the future?" said Wichita superintendent John Allison.

"Because of economics, we have to look at all those types of things — ads, sponsorships... seeing how we could possibly increase revenue streams."

The school board isn't considering any specific proposals. But Allison and board members say they won't rule out such things as increasing ads on campuses, offering naming rights to school properties or expanding Education Edge, a foundation that seeks private donations for Wichita schools.

"It's something we definitely would look at," said board member Lynn Rogers. "But we'd have to be careful with it. And I don't think it's any kind of cure-all."

Despite criticism from many who say schools should be commercial-free zones, districts around the country are turning to corporate sponsors to help fill budget holes. Some examples:

* Los Angeles school leaders voted in December to overturn their district's ban on campus advertising. The move, which could prompt logos on cafeteria walls and ball fields, and on the sides of drums in the marching band, is expected to raise $18 million a year.

* A Minnesota district is considering vinyl ad wraps that could appear on up to 10 percent of available surfaces in schools, including walls and floors. The decals — one promotes Mall of America's "Underwater Adventures" aquarium — can be placed, billboard-style, across banks of lockers.

* Ads for real estate agents, insurance companies and pizza chains are showing up on the sides of school buses in six states, including Colorado. Eight more are considering lifting bans on school bus ads.

* In Camp Hill, Pa., officials are offering naming rights to two school gyms for $250,000 each, a library for $150,000 and the high school counseling office for $15,000. Districts elsewhere are considering selling naming rights to rooms, hallways, nurses' offices and schools.

* Years ago in Grapevine, Texas, where Allison once served as a deputy superintendent, officials signed a $4 million agreement with Dr Pepper that allowed the company to paint its logo atop a high school building. The roof was prime real estate because it can be seen from planes taking off and landing at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.

Critics of commercials in schools say even subtle ads and logos exploit a captive audience and undermine education.

"Nobody thinks that advertising in schools is a good thing," said Josh Golin, associate director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, based in Boston.

"It's only when schools are facing these really terrible, unfortunate budget shortfalls that anyone considers it."

Golin's group doesn't track how many schools sell naming rights or advertisements. But, "It absolutely seems like there's many, many more districts considering them because of the economic downturn," he said.

Open to 'partnerships'

Wichita school board president Connie Dietz said she "felt a little iffy at first" when the board hired a marketing firm in 2009 to sell ads for high school gym walls, TVs and sporting events.

The move was intended to make up for some of the revenue schools lost as soda companies withdrew vending contracts because of legislative restrictions and rising concerns about childhood obesity.

Dietz pushed for guidelines that prevent schools from accepting ads for alcohol or tobacco products or anything deemed inappropriate. Only 20 percent of the student-produced TV programming in schools can be ads.

"This is an education setting, so obviously the public wants us to maintain a safe and appropriate environment for our kids," she said.

Now Dietz says she is "open to developing new partnerships for schools." One example could be if a local aircraft company offered to underwrite programs at a new technical education magnet high school, part of the 2008 bond issue plan, she said.

"That might be a very prime opportunity, whether it's naming rights or something else," she said. "Right now our needs are not for the construction part of it, but the maintenance and operation after it's done.

"In this day and age, we have to look at all kinds of ways of doing business," Dietz said. "If an employer can demonstrate a partnership that improves the educational opportunities for kids, I would certainly be open to those sorts of talks."

Allison said naming rights to school properties — including, possibly, a new high school under construction in northeast Wichita — are a short-term solution because they're usually one-time donations.

He and board members also are concerned about fallout if a sponsoring company does something controversial. (Think of Houston's Enron Field.)

Allison said he learned a lesson about the importance of reviewing and approving even routine advertisements after a plumbing company paid $10,000 a year to be a corporate sponsor at his former Texas district. Five-by-7-foot banners in every high school gym and stadium pictured a child holding a toilet plunger with the slogan, "We've got your potty covered."

"Cute, maybe, but not something you want to have plastered up there," he said. "There's some dignity and decorum you need to have."

'Devil's in the details'

Wichita school leaders say they will consider any new revenue stream. But a tough economy and legislative restrictions, such as one that prevents districts from making a profit on building rentals, mean schools likely won't see a windfall.

Banner and television ads at the district's seven comprehensive high schools brought in about $35,000 last year, Allison said.

"On the surface it sounds like a good idea, but the devil's in the details," said board member Barbara Fuller. "Kansas has always had the funding of education in our Constitution, and when we do things like this we get away from that foundation.

"The question then would become: How long can we sustain that?"

Efforts by corporations to promote their products or points of view in schools are not new. Discretionary spending by children and teens adds up to billions of dollars a year — and children influence how their parents spend billions more — so school marketing campaigns are common.

In Wichita, that includes incentive programs such as Pizza Hut's Book-It program, which awards individual-size pizzas to students who complete an allotted amount of reading. Fast-food companies give coupons for free ice cream or kids' meals. Scholastic Inc. sponsors school book fairs. And collection programs such as Campbell's Labels for Education and General Mills' Box Tops for Education remain a popular way for parent-teacher groups to raise money.

Corporate influence has become more prevalent elsewhere as well. Company names are part of sporting events, Olympics coverage and the Wichita River Festival.

Golin, of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, says that's why it's especially important that schools say no to ad campaigns.

"One of the best defenses children have against advertising is the ability to turn off the TV, the computer screen. In schools, they don't have that choice," he said.

Dietz, the board president, said she understands such concerns. But if school programs or teachers' jobs could be saved with "reasonable partnerships," leaders will at least consider them.

"No matter what you do you're going to upset somebody. That's the tightrope we walk," Dietz said. "I appreciate people thinking and bringing forth ideas for ways we can help our schools through this crisis."

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