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N.J. Assembly Committee Approves Displaying Ads on School Buses

Jessica Calefati
The Star-Ledger
September 17, 2010

The traditional yellow buses that ferry children to school may soon get a new look following the Assembly Education Committee’s unanimous approval of a bill that would allow districts to display advertisements on their buses.

For cash-strapped districts that charge fees for field trips, courtesy busing, or participation in sports, the bill is a welcome opportunity to boost revenue without raising taxes. But critics question whether it’s appropriate for students to travel to school in vehicles that double as billboards-on-wheels.

Assemblywoman Connie Wagner (D-Bergen) did not discount the criticism that advertisements on school buses commercialize children, but said she has not yet received any negative feedback about the bill, which has 37 co-sponsors from both parties.

"My greatest fear is that we may not have the resources to properly educate our children," said Wagner, one of the bill’s sponsors. "Selling ads on school buses is thinking outside the box and an example of public-private financing that happens to have bi-partisan support."

Districts who contract with student transportation companies and do not own their own buses could not take advantage of the bill, but districts that do own buses could earn up to $1000 per bus selling ads, Wagner said. The bill would require districts to use 50 percent of any revenue generated by the ads to offset transportation costs.

When asked where districts should draw the line about which ads are not appropriate for school buses, Assemblyman Scott Rudder (R-Burlington) said that’s a decision best left to local school boards. The bill only explicitly prohibits ads for political advocacy and tobacco or alcohol products, leaving advertisements for questionable products such as junk food or violent video games available to districts that desire them.

"It’s up to local school boards to decide whether to advertise, what they would prohibit, and what they would approve," Rudder said. "Generally speaking, I have hesitation about advertising in school parameters, but … we’re already inundated with advertising on the radio, on computers, on PDAs, etc. We need to capture this opportunity to reduce our property tax burden and offset costs."

Associate Director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood Josh Golin understands the plight of financially struggling school districts, but said "exploiting" students on a school bus is not a reasonable solution for a budget crisis.

"Kids have to ride the school bus," Golin said. "For parents who are increasingly concerned about the commercial messages kids are exposed to, there’s no opting out of the bus."

Bryan McGaire, the assistant superintendent for finance and support services in Medford, said his township’s school board is ready to participate in the school bus advertising program as soon as the bill is signed into law.

"We are looking to generate revenue to support us because no one else is out there supporting us," McGaire said.

Medford is not looking to turn its buses into "rolling billboards, not like NJ Transit buses," McGaire said, but the township is ready for New Jersey to release the "financial shackles" and give towns like Medford, which funds nearly all of its operating budget with local property taxes, a chance to survive in the down economy.
New Jersey is not the only state to consider school bus advertising. Washington lawmakers discussed a national bill earlier this year, and similar measures are being floated in Ohio and Utah. About half a dozen states already allow school bus advertising including Colorado, Arizona, Florida, Minnesota, Tennessee, and Texas, according to the Associated Press.





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