October 12th, 2007

Seminole may make U-turn for bus radio

By Dave Weber
Orlando Sun-Sentinel

The School Board might ax its policy barring ads on buses.

Now that the Seminole County School Board has decided to allow radio ads on school buses, it has to do one more thing: change the policy that prohibits ads on school buses.

Officials say the policy Seminole adopted several years ago was overlooked when the board unanimously approved a contract Tuesday with Bus Radio.

The Massachusetts company will air a daily program of rock music, FCAT lessons and advertisements through special radios on 53 buses during a trial period through the end of the school year.

“I have suggested that we make our policy clear on what we mean,” School Board Chairman Barry Gainer said, after the Orlando Sentinel questioned whether the Bus Radio deal conflicted with the board’s own rules.

Gainer and other district officials say the ban was aimed at placards inside buses, not radios.

But the rule on bus ads, part of a larger policy limiting advertisements throughout the school system, does not make that distinction.

It reads: “Advertising on school buses shall be prohibited.”

Critics say it is still a good rule and should not be changed.

“The board adopted a sound policy when it specified it was prohibiting advertising on buses,” said Robert Weissman, director of Commercial Alert, a Washington-based advocacy group campaigning against Bus Radio. “There is no reason to depart from the wisdom embedded in that policy.”

School-district officials say they remain tentative about Bus Radio, which has generated controversy across the country because of its play list and advertisements. Critics say kids on buses are captive audiences for the ads and music.

Vogel: Policy overlooked

If the School Board is pleased with the trial run, the radio show will expand to Seminole’s entire fleet of 400 buses transporting more than 30,000 students every weekday.

Superintendent Bill Vogel said the policy was overlooked and didn’t come up during discussions of the Bus Radio proposal with his staff or with the School Board.

But Vogel said board members and board attorney Ned Julian recalled that the policy’s original intent was to prohibit subway-style placards that another company was shopping to school districts a few years ago.

“Policies stand for what they say,” Vogel said. “However, if there is a question that comes up, we go to the intent of it.”

Julian added that the board is free to interpret its 633 pages of policies any way it wishes.

Nevertheless, Gainer said he will propose clarifying the policy to prohibit bus placards but allow radio advertising.

Gainer acknowledged that such a change would sanction one form of advertising while continuing to outlaw another.

‘Not 100% sold on it’

One of his colleagues questioned the value of any advertising directed at students.

“I am going to scrutinize this because I am not 100 percent sold on it,” said School Board member Dede Schaffner, who voted for the trial run.

Schaffner said she intends to ride school buses herself to hear Bus Radio programming and decide whether the music is wholesome and the ads unobjectionable.

But critics say there is more to it. The radio show asks kids to visit its Web site, where yet more ads are posted.

The radio show also encourages kids to buy CDs by such featured artists as Nickelback, whose on-air songs are clean but whose albums include suggestive numbers such as “Rockstar,” a song that harmonizes about having a “drug dealer on speed dial.” Another song, “Animal,” is about sex in a car.

Bus Radio’s programming was rejected by Orange, Volusia and Polk school systems.

But Seminole is among a growing number of districts across the country to sign up on the theory that music on buses will improve student behavior.

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