School bus advertising being considered in NJ

TRENTON, N.J. - September 16, 2010

The bill would allow ads on the outside of buses that districts own or lease. Ads for tobacco or alcohol products or ones that push a political agenda would not be allowed. Individual districts that choose to sell ad space on buses would get to decide the number of ads and their size, and would set their own rates.

Gov. Chris Christie cut aid to schools by $812 million this year. Republican Assembly members who sponsored the bill, Scott Rudder and Dawn Marie Addiego, said any measure that helps districts raise revenue without harming students or hurting education deserves consideration, especially during a recession. A similar bill went nowhere in the previous legislative session, but that was before Christie's cuts.

About half a dozen states, including Colorado, Arizona, Florida, Minnesota, Tennessee and Texas, already allow bus advertising. A handful more are considering school bus ads. Proponents say it practically amounts to free money, but opponents object to the blatant commercialization.

"School boards are facing enormous pressure to maintain standards and services with significantly less financial resources than last year," said Rudder, who testified at the hearing before the Assembly Education Committee. "This legislation will provide school districts with an opportunity to derive revenues from a new source and help to offset the impact of reduced state aid."

A Democratic sponsor of the bill also touted its merits: "With other states generating as much as $1,000 per bus, this bill is designed to increase revenue for school districts to provide needed services," Assemblywoman Connie Wagner said.

Addiego called the idea innovative and said the additional revenue source could help students and their taxpaying parents, as well as districts trying to maintain programs and services in a difficult economy.

The bill requires boards of education to use half the revenue to defray fuel costs for student busing. The other half could go toward school programs or services.

Bryan McGair, an assistant superintendent in suburban Medford Township, wrote to the panel urging its support.

"Now, more than ever, is the time to remove some of the revenue shackles from local school districts in order for us to truly generate sustainable alternative revenues to support all aspects of our school program," he wrote. "Being permitted to sell advertising space on 70 district owned buses is projected to generate $350,000 annually for the Medford Schools. This equates to 1.5 to 2 cents on the tax rate each year."

All but 8 percent of the district's $47 million school budget is funded by local property taxes.

The state education commissioner would get the final say about any potentially offensive ads.

The panel also heard from educators that some districts had begun charging fees for extracurricular activities or transportation while others had cut school activities or eliminated some sports to save money.

Bob Murphy, principal of East Brunswick High School, said participation in sports, clubs and activities is down about 10 percent at his school since it began charging students $15 per club and $50 per sport four years ago. He said the school also eliminated 15 clubs because it couldn't afford them but has been able to keep the fees from rising. Students who are eligible for free or reduced lunches are not charged the fee, he said.

Robert Henning, who coaches two sports at East Brunswick High, said though he originally was concerned the fees would cause a drop off in participation, that hasn't happened. He said the charges have been kept relatively low and there haven't been any cases where the cost prohibited a student from participating in the programs he coaches.

School officials said some less affluent districts, like Bound Brook, decided not to charge fees that much of the community could not afford; the district cut middle-school and freshmen sports instead.

Reaction to the idea from parents and taxpayers was decidedly mixed.

"I don't see a problem with that. I mean schools are losing a lot of money and they need all the help they can get," said Arlene Auletta of Ewing.

"We should be educating the children in terms of being critical thinkers, not in terms of wanting more material stuff and that is what advertising is about," said Jim Patterson of Pennsauken.

The state education commissioner would get the final say about any potentially offensive ads.

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