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Now that California school buses will be running for at least another year, why not let districts use them to make a little cash on the side – the side of the buses, that is. State Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff has introduced a bill to do just that. SB 1295 would allow school districts to sell advertising space on the outside of school buses and keep the revenues.

“California’s fiscal mismanagement has resulted in budgetary woes for our state’s public education system,” said Senator Huff in a news release. “My legislation provides a new and needed source of funding for our schools at no cost to taxpayers.”

There’s no solid estimate yet of how much money the ads could generate.  Eric Thronson, who prepared the analysis of SB 1295 for the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee, said one advertising company he checked with charges advertisers anywhere from $40 to more than $200 a month, and the company takes its cut from that.

Colorado was the trendsetter, approving bus ad regulations almost 20 years ago, and districts there have met with mixed success. Colorado Springs, the first district in the country to advertise on the outside of buses, takes in about $40,000 a year, but that’s out of a total budget around $225 million.   Another Colorado district with 103 buses earned only about $3,000 a year and recently made some changes in the hopes of increasing its earnings to $10,000 a year.

The anti-tax group, CalTax, anticipates much higher revenues in California.  In a report released earlier this month, the organization estimates that advertising on the outside of buses could raise $31 million in annual revenue for school districts.

Whether it’s on the high end or low, Sen. Huff cites the recent fiscal status report released by the State Department of Education showing that 127 school districts are in danger of not being able to pay their bills within the next two years as evidence that school districts need more freedom to raise money.  “The senator’s feeling is that any amount of extra revenue is welcome, and it gives school districts freedom to use it how they want,” said Huff’s spokesman William Bird.

School bus as moving moving billboard for schools. (Source:  Campaign for a Commercial-free Childhood). Click to enlarge.
School bus as moving moving billboard for schools. (Source: Campaign for a Commercial-free Childhood). Click to enlarge.

Rural Southern Humboldt Unified School District is ready to start moving on the ads.  Last week, the school board passed a resolution in support of Huff’s bill and posted a sample letter on its website for parents and other residents to send to their local state senator. Last January, when the mid-year trigger cuts eliminated school bus service, the district sent two busloads of students and parents to Sacramento and successfully lobbied lawmakers to restore the funds.

“It’s an indication of how desperate rural districts are to maintain their transportation,” said school board member Barbara Lindsay.  Humboldt is both tiny and huge. It has 780 students in kindergarten through 12th grade attending seven schools scattered around 773 square miles.  As it is, some children spent two hours each way on the school bus.

“The rural school children are the ones who really need to go to school,” explained Lindsay. “A lot of our kids live so rurally that they really need a place a to go to socialize with kids their age.”

Too little for too much

California is already one of 26 states that expressly permits, or doesn’t disallow, advertising inside school buses.  Districts can also sell space on the exterior of campus buildings, lunch tables, in hallways, and in yearbooks or other school-related publications, said Huff’s spokesman, Bird.

SB 1295 has also been amended since it was first introduced to set some parameters for size and content of the ads.  Districts cannot display ads for the following:

  • Tobacco, alcohol, guns, or anything sexually explicit
  • Discriminatory content or nature
  • Implies an endorsement by the school district
  • Is political in nature or relates to a political activity, campaign or candidate
  • Is false, misleading, deceptive, or promotes an illegal activity or antisocial behavior

Additional rules set restrictions on where the ads can be placed and how big they can be so they don’t block the bus drivers’ line of sight, distract other drivers so much that they don’t see the flashing red lights on the bus, or pose any danger of falling off.  But none of the arguments is swaying critics.

Campaign for a Commercial-free Childhood opposes the ads on moral grounds.  “It’s terrible that schools today are struggling financially.  But commercializing children’s education is not the answer,” says the group on its website.  “Advertising on school buses will exploit a captive audience of students, turn schools into endorsers of products that may be harmful to children, and could make the buses less safe.”

So far, however, there is no research to show that buses with ads on them are more likely to be involved in accidents. But given the potential physical danger and manipulative impact on children, they’re simply not worth the income, argues the watchdog group Public Citizen.

“School districts that permit bus advertising generate revenues that are a drop in the bucket when compared to their total budgets,” according to the organization’s report, “School Commercialism:  High Costs, Low Revenues.”

Huff’s bill passed the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee and is scheduled for a hearing before the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday.  A separate bill, AB 1448 , by Assemblymember Warren Furutani would “prohibit the Legislature from reducing funding for home-to-school transportation below the amount established in the Budget Act of 2011.”  That measure cleared the Assembly Education Committee last week with bipartisan support, and now heads to appropriations.

Barbara Lindsay, the school board member in Southern Humboldt Unified School District, is rooting for and working toward getting both bills through.  Lindsay runs her family’s cattle ranch, and doesn’t want to have to leave the area because there’s no money for buses.  “It’s still a really good place to raise kids,” she said, “if you can get them to school.”