Sweetwater Opens Campuses to Corporate Ads
San Diego Union-Tribune
August 1, 2010
South County schools will soon adorn their lunch courts, hallways and bus interiors with ads from the likes of McDonald’s, Nike and Geico under a new effort to generate money and blunt the impact of ongoing state budget cuts.
The Sweetwater Union High School District is the latest in a string of districts locally and nationwide to open its campuses to corporate advertisers, a once-taboo revenue source for public education.
Sweetwater expects to generate $500,000 this school year — and up to $1 million in 2011-12 — once it launches its advertising program in January. The arrangement is poised to become the largest of its kind in the region.
“We are in extraordinary times in terms of the lack of resources from the state for schools,” said Arlie Ricasa, Sweetwater board president. “This is an opportunity to save jobs and programs, but we will ensure that this will not be a willy-nilly kind of advertising that could harm children in any way.”
State spending on education has been drastically cut during the past three years. California faces a $19 billion deficit this year and the governor’s budget proposal calls for a $2.5 billion reduction in school funding.
Desperate for revenue, districts have scrambled to establish new channels of revenue, from charging for student transportation and summer school to floating parcel-tax ballot measures.
Critics argue that subjecting students to ads on campus crosses the line — going from creative financing to exploitation.
“We certainly understand the budget crunch and the situation that schools are in, but this amounts to exploiting a captive audience of students,” said Josh Golin, associate director of the nonprofit Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood at the Judge Baker Children’s Center in Boston. “Advertisers like this because there is no competition. And while a parent or a kid can change the channel or delete a message, they can’t leave school.”
The Sweetwater school board approved a contract with the Chatsworth-based 4 Visual Media Group in June when it adopted its budget, a $345 million spending plan that includes more than $10 million in cuts and layoffs.
The board voted for the advertising program without public discussion, approving the item from a consent agenda of mostly routine matters. However, Ricasa said the vote followed four community budget forums and the results of a survey that showed overwhelming support for the advertising program from 200 who attended those meetings.
In coming months, the district will decide which companies should be allowed to advertise (those selling alcohol, tobacco and energy drinks would be banned), what the ads should look like and where they should be displayed. Parents, educators and community members will have a chance to appeal any advertisements they deem inappropriate.
Undecided is how the advertisements would be presented — as public service announcements, educational messages or simple logos. Some ads would be posted on the buildings that face busy thoroughfares and interstates, but most would be placed in hallways, on lunch tables and inside buses, Sweetwater officials said.
The 42,000-student district will split the ad proceeds with its campuses, with half going to the general fund and the rest going to schools for discretionary spending on everything from computers to teachers.
Other districts have similar advertising plans, including those in Orange County, Fla., which display ads on campuses, websites and newsletters.
The San Diego County Office of Education earned about $200,000 from corporate sponsorships in the 2009-10 school year. Target, REI and Kaiser Permanente help pay for scholarships for the county’s Cuyamaca Outdoor School and other programs. In exchange for their contributions, the companies get the chance to splash their corporate logos on things such as an informational video for parents, teaching materials and a van that travels to schools promoting health and nutrition.
In addition, the San Diego Credit Union spent $10,000 to sponsor an award ceremony for county student videos that aired on a local cable TV station.
Jim Esterbrooks, spokesman for the county Office of Education, said most corporate sponsors are interested in helping public schools, not exploiting students. Besides, he said, today’s youths are savvy due to the constant barrage of advertising seen daily.
“It’s not hard to imagine advertising that would be over the line, but no school is going to turn over their campus to an outside entity that doesn’t have kids’ interests at heart,” Esterbrooks said.
The San Diego Unified School District is crafting a policy that could allow advertisements on middle and high school campuses and on its website. The school board discussed the matter in January and is expected to take it up again once a proposal is completed, which could be as early as September, said Berine Rhinerson, chief district relations officer.
Rhinerson said San Diego Unified would likely start any advertising with its district website, which garners 1.4 million visitors each month and could generate $100,000 in revenue annually.
Other districts in the region and country have experimented with advertising campaigns large and small.
The San Marcos Unified School District has used a radio service that plays ads between public service announcements and popular songs.
Jefferson County Schools, the largest district in Colorado, has a $500,000 contract that allows a bank to advertise on the exterior of its school buses.