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For Pupils, a Note and Ad from School

David Abel
Boston Globe
October 1, 2010

Ads for cigarettes and liquor won’t make the cut.

But ads for local ice cream shops or hair salons could soon be appearing on permission slips, class calendars, and school notices sent home with Peabody elementary school students after a unanimous School Committee vote this week.

The novel plan to sell ad space on school communications marks the latest twist in how commercialization of schools — from the sale of billboard space to ads on buses — is generating cash in lean times.
The ads, possibly the first of their kind in Massachusetts, “will have to be age-appropriate, but we’re thinking about ads from local pizza and ice cream shops, dance and karate schools, maybe from a florist or a college,’’ said Superintendent C. Milton Burnett. The initial program aims to earn at most $24,000.

School officials plan to send letters in coming days to solicit ads from more than 500 members of the city’s Chamber of Commerce. They expect advertisers to pay $300 to run ads on some 10,000 sheets of paper in one elementary school. If a business wants to run ads for all elementary schools in the district, the cost will be $2,000.

The decision to seek a nontraditional source of revenue came as Peabody, like nearly every other district in Massachusetts, has coped with cuts in state aid and escalating costs for everything from contractual obligations to instructional supplies. As a result, Peabody school officials have this year had to lay off six teachers, two guidance counselors, and other staff.

They have also hiked fees for buses and sports. It now costs families with more than one child in the district as much as $600 a year to bus their children to school and $300 for them to play sports.
While parents recognize the need for more revenue, some said they were irked the district has resorted to using their children to carry ads home.

“It just doesn’t seem right to me. Advertisements have nothing to do with education,’’ said Lisa Mirabello, secretary of the parent teacher organization at South Memorial Elementary School who has a son there in first grade. “If anything, they should be sending home something school-related. This doesn’t make sense to me, and it’s kind of weird.’’

Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, said more districts are seeking unconventional revenue streams. Some have considered naming rights for their fields and auditoriums, but it’s the first time he has heard of a district attaching ads to the likes of a permission slip.

He worries that a school’s success in raising money might make the Legislature or Congress more reluctant to approve aid.

“We applaud people for their innovation, but we’re always concerned that the funding bodies will say, ‘Great, go raise money from advertising, vending machines, and charge more for sporting events,’’ he said. “Yet given the fiscal times and the extraordinary pressure that districts are under, if you can save an extracurricular activity by generating revenue, I don’t think we’re in a position to be critical.’’

At a Peabody School Committee meeting at which the advertising strategy was approved Tuesday, members said they hoped the new campaign would supplement the district’s $62 million budget.
Brandi Carpenter, a member of the School Committee with two children in local elementary schools and another on the way, said she hopes the program succeeds enough that it makes sense to expand to the district’s middle school and high school.

“This is just the beginning,’’ she said. “I don’t think we’re selling out our kids. The parents will be getting the ads anyway; we have to get into the game. We need the revenue, and we can assure parents that there won’t be anything inappropriate.’’

She and other school officials said they have mulled the idea for months; and they’re not the only district in the state to seek unconventional sources of revenue.

Districts in Braintree and Beverly began selling advertising on their buses after a 2002 state law laid out specifications for how schools could do it. In 2004, the Berlin-Boylston regional schools began selling advertising on their buses.

Last year, school officials in Ware approved signs on their ball fields, echoing similar efforts from North Andover to Hopkinton.

In Peabody, which has about 6,100 students in 10 schools, parents interviewed had mixed feelings about what some regarded as the district’s more invasive approach to advertising.

“If the school can make money and it helps, then sure,’’ said Denise Colbert, co-president of the parent teacher organization at South Memorial. “Why not?’’

But her co-president worried that the new money-raising effort would take advantage of the children.

“I just don’t know if this is appropriate,’’ said Tracy Connolly, who has three children at the school. “It seems like just another marketing opportunity to get kids to get their parents excited about something. I’m not sure that’s a good idea.’’





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