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From school walls to buses, districts sell space for ads

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The school district in Grapevine, Texas, is open for business. For $1,000, a company can put its name on a two- by five-foot sign in a district gym and advertise daily on a schoolwide television station. For $4,000 more, it can hang additional signs on outdoor stadiums and the district's buses. And $15,000 can buy a deluxe advertising package that includes recognition on the district's voice mail system and signage rights to the roof of a school building visible to passengers flying into the nearby Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.

The Grapevine-Colleyville district's first rooftop-advertising deal will be with Dr Pepper. The soft drink company and the 12,000-student system have signed a 10-year, multimillion-dollar contract that is believed to be the largest of its kind.

Although few districts have sought corporate sponsorship as aggressively as Grapevine-Colleyville, such deals are becoming increasingly common as schools search for new ways to generate money without raising taxes.

Still, the practice has many critics who argue that educators who open school doors to advertisers are padding budgets at the expense of young minds. "I have come to believe that people are so incredibly unaware of the motives of advertisers," says Brita Butler-Wall of a Seattle group called Citizen's Campaign for Commercial-Free Schools. "It's so insane for parents to think that these companies actually care about the students."

But to people like Dan DeRose, who helped broker the deal between Grapevine-Colleyville and Dr Pepper, it's the students who lose when districts say no to the extra dollars that businesses can deliver. " There's a great need for what we do," says DeRose, the founder of DD Marketing, a Pueblo, Colorado-based company that links school districts and universities with corporate sponsors. "Everybody needs money, and schools don't realize the potential they have to generate revenue."

Advertising in schools is nothing new. Districts have long used ads from local businesses to help pay the cost of school newspapers, yearbooks, and athletic programs. But during the late 1980s, businesses came up with a host of savvier methods for marketing themselves in schools, and many districts--especially those hit hard by the economy's downturn--were receptive. Among the most controversial commercial forays was Channel One, launched by media entrepreneur Christopher Whittle in 1989. Now owned by K-III Communications Corp., Channel One gives free satellite dishes, television sets, and VCRs to schools that promise to require their students to watch the company's daily mix of news and advertising. The program is broadcast in roughly 12,000 middle and high schools.

District 11 in Colorado Springs, Colorado, took corporate sponsorship to a new level in 1994 when it launched a full-scale fund-raising program that offered advertising space in hallways and on school buses and athletic fields. Tracey Cooper, the district's internal advertising manager, says the advertisements are tastefully done and resemble public service announcements. Burger King, for example, sponsors "spirit buses" at the district's five high schools. The buses are painted with the mascot of each high school, along with a smaller Burger King logo.

"In a perfect world," Cooper says, "we wouldn't have to do this. But I think the program helped with how the community perceived us because it showed we were willing to be entrepreneurial and weren't just taking the taxpayers' money."

Officials of the Grapevine-Colleyville schools proposed similar sponsorships during a brainstorming session last year when they were looking for new ways to raise revenue. Though the district is one of the wealthiest in Texas, it relinquished $11.4 million last year to a poorer district as a result of the state's revamped school finance system. "Right now, we're in a pinch," says district spokeswoman Louise Henry. "We can't add any programs or go forward with technological improvements. And the community is saying they don't want their property taxes increased again."

Nationally, much of the debate this year over advertising in schools concerned buses. Measures to allow bus signs failed in New York state and New Mexico, but in Arizona, Republican Governor Fife Symington recently signed into law a bill that enables individual districts to make their own decisions about such advertising.

Butler-Wall, the anti-ad activist, argues that corporate sponsorships in schools will eventually bring public education one step closer to privatization. Young people, she says, are bombarded with advertising in malls, at bus stops, and on television. Schools should offer a commercial-free haven focused solely on academic learning. "If this is where we're going with public schools, then let us walk into it with our eyes wide open," Butler-Wall says. "Let us not just sit back and allow it to happen to our kids."

Her group successfully campaigned to stop the Seattle school board's plans to accept advertisements on school property. The board approved advertising last fall but voted to rescind the policy in March. "There were a number of people who made it clear that they were prepared to fight this issue for a long time," says Chris Case, a spokeswoman for the Seattle schools. "And we didn't want to be in an adversarial position with anyone."

Last spring, the Seattle Council of Parent, Teacher, and Student Associations scoured 30 schools to see how much advertising was reaching campuses. The group found that many classrooms are chock-full of corporate logos--on posters, computer mouse pads, calendars, and book covers--and that a number of teachers use company-sponsored art and essay contests to motivate students.

"Schools are a very permeable environment for advertisers," Butler-Wall says. "Nobody's minding the store."

Certainly from the corporate perspective, placing ads in schools makes good business sense. "It's always in the back of our minds to improve sales," says Chuck Breske, advertising director of the Cub Foods franchises, which recently renewed a $12,000 contract with District 11 in Colorado Springs. "We're building on the image we have in the community of being involved. And that's important."

Vol. 09, Issue 01, Page 10-11

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