Advertising on School Buses Softens the Budget Crunch

In an era of severe, nationwide school budget cuts, easy money for a school district is hard to pass up. Even if it means selling advertising space on school buses.

“It’s free money,” says Kathy Bareiss, a spokeswoman for the Mesa Unified School District in Arizona. “Our parents are encouraging us to find more little ways to bring in revenue instead of cut school activities, like field trips.”

In December 2009, Mesa district officials changed a policy to allow advertising on its 497 buses. By September 2010, three advertisers — Robison Orthodontics, Wing Orthodontics of Mesa, and Mesa Community College — combined to buy space on 65 buses.

“Within a few days (of road exposure), we were getting multiple calls from businesses that wanted to learn more about advertising on our buses,” Bareiss says.

Mesa Unified is the state’s largest school district serving almost 70,000 students. District buses travel 32,000 miles a day driving in and out of virtually every neighborhood within the district’s 220 square miles.

“Our buses are everywhere,” says Bareiss. “The buses allow advertisers to target neighborhoods surrounding their business location. “

As of 2011, just a handful of states allow school bus advertising. In addition to Arizona, other states include Colorado, New Jersey, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah. Several other states allow only interior ads, while others are currently considering bills authorizing commercial advertisements on school buses. Most school districts work with a marketing firm to arrange the ads while maintaining final approval of the ads.

Colorado Education Association (CEA) President Beverly Ingle says Colorado’s public education system “must be funded in an adequate, sustainable way” that helps all school districts provide a quality education.

“Our students are suffering from two consecutive years of massive budget cuts,” Ingle says. “Compensating for school budget cuts with bus advertising revenue is not the way to go.”

Kerrie Dallman, a high school teacher and released-time president of the Jefferson County Education Association (JCEA) in Colorado says any marketing done involving schools should not involve general commercial advertising.

“It is a shame that we are reliant on generating revenue to fund public education by marketing products and businesses to our students and the general public,” Dallman says. “We are in the business of education. If there is any marketing that should be done, it should be marketing our schools to the public.”

In most states, laws affecting school bus ads prohibit advertising for alcohol, tobacco, religious organizations, and anything political or sexually explicit. Each state has its own regulations regarding ad size, location, and material.  For example, Texas allows advertisements in three areas on the bus: 30 inches by 90 inches located on the left rear quarter panel below the windows, and 18 inches by 108 inches located on either side above the windows. Tennessee allows a 16-inch- by- 60-inch ad on both sides of the bus below the windows. Ads usually take the form of a hard rubber sticker which is magnetized, or one that can be temporarily glued to the surface.

Rates in Mesa Unified for a 10-foot-by-2-foot sign range from $225 a month for three months to $214 a month for an entire school year. During the district’s first year of advertising (2010-11), approximately 25 percent of buses carried ads earning about $60,000.  Advertising customers included a dairy council, community college, orthodontists and dentists, health care groups, and clients involved with children’s activities. This school year, says Bareiss, the district has continuing advertisers as well as new clients, including auto dealers and insurance companies.

“We anticipate doubling the revenues,” she says.

In the wake of $100 million in cuts over the past four years, Bareiss says community feedback about the decision to sell ads has been positive.

“Online comments indicate that many, many people want the district to look for ways to make money rather than take away resources,” she says. Revenue from bus promos goes to the transportation budget.

Jeffco Public Schools in Jefferson County, Colorado, is the largest district in the state with more than 84,000 students in 150 schools. In 2008-09, the district signed a four-year contract with First Bank of Colorado for $500,000, which is deposited into the district’s general fund.

District spokeswoman Melissa Reeves says the bank’s logo appears on the sides of 100 of the district’s 350 buses, as well as at school events.

“It was a package deal,” Reeves says. “The contract also allows First Bank to advertise its logo in our high school gyms (17), our stadiums (two), and on the district’s Web site.”

Joe Selvidio, president of the Jefferson County Classified School Employees Association (JCCSEA) says the local Association takes no official position on advertising on school buses.

“There are policies in place that state there will be no interference with current school district advertising and marketing programs,” he says, including cafeteria contracts with food providers. “Such advertising will seek to model and promote positive values for the students in Jeffco.”

To advertise on Jeffco buses, sponsors must comply with district advertising policies designed to provide “a mutually beneficial relationship between the district and the business community,” he adds.

At the Judson School District in Texas, 50 out of 141 buses bearing three logos create as much as $21,000 per month, or $189,000 a year, according to a San Antonio Express-News report.  In the article, Dan Kershner, Judson executive director of operations, said “our buses travel 25,000 miles a week, and who wouldn’t want to get their ad driven through all these subdivisions? That’s major visibility.”