December 15th, 2008

Legislation Would Turn New Jersey School Buses into Billboards

By Derek Harper
PressofAtlanticCity.com

People recognize school buses by their distinctive bright yellow colors. But some New Jersey school districts’ transportation fleets have administrators seeing green.

State legislators have introduced at least three bills since January that would allow school districts to raise money by selling ads on the sides of the buses they rent or own.

Similar bills have been introduced over the years, but in tight fiscal times, the idea now is getting serious consideration.

Assemblyman Scott Rudder, R-Burlington, a sponsor of one of the bills, said districts approached him about the idea. He said it is a way for schools to raise cash without having to dip deeper into taxpayers’ pockets.

“It is permissive,” he said. “The whole concept is if a school district chooses, they can advertise.”

While districts could pick advertisers, the state commissioner of education could block one if he or she decided it was inappropriate. The only banned content would be for alcohol, tobacco or political advocacy.

“They all can be bad for your health,” Rudder joked. “Just ask the governor of Illinois.”

Other groups say the ads would just further expose young people, who may be more susceptible to suggestion, to an ongoing barrage of commercial messages. The National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services also opposes advertising out of fear it could distract drivers.

School District 11 in Colorado Springs, Colo., is believed to be the first district in the nation to place ads on the sides of their school buses, having started in 1993. The program now annually reaps $130,000 to $150,000 for the district, according to published reports.

At least a dozen other states allow some form of advertising on buses.

Regionally, Pennsylvania allows advertisements inside buses, while New York City allows small ads on the right side of buses. Delaware bans school bus ads.

New Jersey also has explicitly banned the practice since at least 1985, according to Michael Yaple, of the New Jersey School Boards Association.

The proposal to allow ads was first floated in New Jersey in a May 1996 bill that never got out of the Assembly Education Committee. Subsequent bills came and went about once a session.

Two current bills specified all money raised would go to the district’s general fund. The third bill said half of the funds would go to offset district transportation costs, while the other half would be spent as the district finds appropriate. None have left committee, the first step toward enactment.

This third bill, A3086, also said the state Board of Education would come out with rules dealing with legal sizes and criteria for determining age appropriateness.

A list of the bill’s sponsors is a bipartisan mix of 29 members of the 80-person General Assembly, including three of the 12-member Assembly Education Committee and Speaker Joseph J. Roberts Jr., D-Camden, Gloucester.

It is unclear how much a town could expect to raise from school-bus advertising. Rudder said he thought Bigger municipalities closer to wealthier and larger regions could charge more, while smaller, rural and poorer districts could expect to see less.

Local officials are mixed over the proposal.

State Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, an educator, said he wanted to consider the bill further. Assemblymen Douglas H Fisher, D-Salem, Gloucester, Cumberland, and John F. Amodeo, R-Atlantic, are among the co-sponsors of A3086.

“I do think it’s a decent piece of legislation in tough fiscal times,” said Amodeo, who compared it to advertisements on baseball outfield walls. “I think that anything that helps the taxpayers out is definitely something we have to look at.”

Similarly, Vineland School Superintendent Charles Ottinger said there was precedent. When he was Vineland’s athletic director, the scoreboards were sponsored, the district had an agreement with Pepsi that paid for an electronic timing system and Gittone Stadium, where sports events are played, had banner advertisements during the season.

“There were some good benefits from what we have done,” Ottinger said. “We would want to control the messages on the buses, but I’m not completely turned off by the idea.”

But in Egg Harbor Township, school Transportation Director Warren Fipp raised safety questions.

The district uses 150 buses to transport about 8,000 children a collective 7,000 miles every day. It spends between $3.5 million and $4 million on transportation alone and takes extra steps to make the buses more visible.

“Even though everybody needs funds for their district, the problem I see is we’re transporting the world’s most precious cargo,” Fipp said. “I don’t want people to look at school buses and read the signs. I want people to see the school bus and say ‘whoops, I better stop.’”

The New Jersey Educational Association did not respond to a request for comment, but Yaple said state School Boards Association supported it as an unfortunate, but useful, crutch in difficult times. “In a perfect world, schools would be fully funded and we wouldn’t have to consider this,” Yaple said. “But schools just went through several years of largely stagnant funding, so things are looking somewhat dismal.”

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