Allentown-area school district opens buses to ads

UPDATED 11 a.m.

“To advertise or not to advertise,” that is the question — at least in the minds of many school districts feeling the pinch of Pennsylvania’s cuts to education spending.

But while Hamlet had time to be wishy-washy and indecisive, many of the state’s school districts don’t.

Programs are being cut. District staffers are being laid off. State aid is eroding.

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It’s this quandary that prompted the Parkland School District near Allentown to take a stand against budget shortfalls by selling ad space inside their school buses — a Pennsylvania first.

It’ll be a K-12 bus ride brought to you by slashed government spending.

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Although many have spoken out against raising revenue in this manner, Parkland Superintendent Rich Sniscak says that his district was caught between a rock and a hard place.

“Obviously we’re not looking to exploit children or any thing like that,” Sniscak said. “I understand where people are sensitive to this issue, but people are sensitive to having programs cut too, and they’re sensitive to having rising class sizes. So we have to weigh all the factors and make decisions that maybe 10 years ago, in different circumstances, we probably wouldn’t even have thought of needing to do.”

Sniscak maintains that the content for the advertisements will be selected with a very narrow focus — age-appropriate things such as nutrition and higher education.

Only certain advertisers

Asked point-blank about the possibility of products such as Coca-Cola or Snickers lining the walls of his district’s buses, Sniscak was categorical in his dismissal.

“No. Absolutely not,” he said. “Burger King, McDonald’s — that stuff’s not happening … we have policy that prohibits that.”

Critics argue that Sniscak’s promises are not enough. They say that no such provisions are expressly written into the district’s advertising contract, and worry that these lines could be easily crossed.

All ads would have to be approved by a 10-member panel made up of district officials and one parent. Ads related to tobacco, alcohol, religion and politics also would be automatically barred.

Parkland’s plan was proposed in January, but then put on hold so the board could research the issue.

Earlier this week, the board reconvened and voted 7-1 in favor of the advertising.

Parkland has contracted The Factory, a Schwenksville-based firm, to solicit and sell ad space in the buses. With 75 percent of the ad revenue going to the district, officials expect the ads will mean up to $150,000 for the schools in the program’s first-year pilot phase.

Evaluating the impact

Board member Robert M. Cohen was the board’s lone dissenter. Although he could not be reached for comment, he has been quoted elsewhere saying, “I think this is an intrusion upon what our mission is. Are we a vehicle for advertising? Or are we a place for educating our community’s kids?”

David Parsons is parent of a ten year student in the district with 30 years of professional advertising experience. “The school district has been given the mandate to educate and develop our children,” Parsons said, “not to advertise to them.”

Lan Chaplin, a marketing professor at Villanova University specializing in the consumer habits of children and teenagers, also voiced her concerns on the matter.

“If ads are going to be placed on school buses, then parents and educators need to find ways to teach these kids about what the ads really mean and what they’re trying to do,” Chaplin said.

“At a young age they think it’s just like a show — entertainment,” she said. “Then, as they grow older, they start understanding that they’re telling me, ‘That’s a product that I can buy.’ But they don’t understand that the ads could possibly be lying to them.”

What impact these ads could have on the actual day-to-day education process is not known.

But Dave Davare of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association downplays the idea that there could be much effect.

“We don’t expect that it will be any more distracting than the vending machines that have been in district buildings for a number of years,” Davare explained. “It’s like anything else, if it’s done in an age-appropriate manner and if it’s done outside of the classroom, we wouldn’t expect any adverse impact.”

Real worry is cuts to education funds

The real effects, says Davare, will come from the other consequences of minimized education spending — namely, the reduction of after-school programs, elimination of arts and music programs, as well as increases in class sizes, especially at the elementary level.

In addition to reducing services, schools have also begun to tap into their students’ wallets to cover their costs by charging fees for everything from participating in extra-curricular activities to parking on school property.

The Pennsylvania State Educators Association estimates that education funding in the state fell by $860 million from 2010 to 2011. During that period at Parkland, the PSEA estimates a $1.2 million reduction.

But Superintendent Sniscak says that this figure doesn’t even begin to tell the story of his district’s financial woes. He claims that they’ve lost an additional $5 million over the last few years because many of the businesses in his region have succeeded in negotiating lower commercial tax rates — money that used to be funneled into the school district.

In the face of all this, among other cuts, Sniscak had to fire 60 staffers in 2011. And he expects another round of layoffs this year.

Despite the abhorrent budget realities in the state, critics point to the other 43 other states that aren’t advertising on their school buses and suggest that there are other ways to generate funds.

Although Parkland is Pennsylvania’s first case of advertising in buses, the phenomenon has been taking place inside of many of the state’s schools for years now. Bucks County’s Pennsbury School District caused a stir last year by branding ads on their schools’ walls, floors, lockers and cafeteria tables.

With the way the state’s budgets have been laid out, as Sniscak says, times have changed.

“We’re in a different environment right now in terms of public education,” he said.

In that environment, at least when it comes to school advertising, Hamlet’s question seems to be becoming less and less relevant. Unless schools are willing to make cuts elsewhere, it simply has to be.

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