Selling ads on school buildings wins early backing

A 2004 plan to sell naming rights for the district's High School of the Future never materialized. The plan was to make a total of $15 million in the deal.
A 2004 plan to sell naming rights for the district's High School of the Future never materialized. The plan was to make a total of $15 million in the deal. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: December 05, 2013

City Council moved Tuesday on a long-percolating idea to raise money for the School District of Philadelphia - by selling advertising space on district buildings.

The chief sponsor of the plan, Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, noted that large school districts around the country already sell ads on schools and buses.

She said selling ads here would provide "much-needed revenue" for a district grappling with a $304 million budget shortfall.

"So imagine, like in California, a West Philadelphia football field paid for by Nike," she said before the Rules Committee approved her bill.

Word of the bill's advance prompted expressions of support in some quarters and dismay in others. One parent warned of ads becoming children's "unwritten curriculum."

If passed by Council, the bill would make zoning changes to permit and regulate advertising, but the ultimate decision on whether to sell the ads still would lie with the School Reform Commission.

The district's chief operating officer, Fran Burns, made corporate sponsorship sound like a more distant possibility Tuesday when she cautioned that passing the bill "does not guarantee execution."

"While we remain impartial to how revenue is generated, we acknowledge this idea as a way to generate income from nontax revenue," she said.

Councilman William K. Greenlee asked if she had a timeline for moving forward with selling ads - Burns said she did not - and noted, "This has been out there as an idea for a while."

"We don't want it studied to death," Greenlee said. "I think it would be the desire of Council moving this forward to get it done."

The idea of selling ads on schools has drawn critics.

Robert Weissman, president of the Washington-based watchdog group Public Citizen, said children already are "surrounded by near-constant advertising."

"But the ubiquity of commercialism is not a reason for allowing school advertising," he said in a statement. "It is a reason why children need a sanctuary where they can focus on learning."

In a school district where funding crises have become an almost annual rite, talk of selling advertising on athletic fields and school buses has cropped up before. In 2004, officials announced a plan to sell naming rights for the district's High School of the Future, built in partnership with Microsoft Corp. They even proposed selling naming rights for individual classrooms and sections of the school, hoping to capture a total of $15 million. The plan never materialized.

While the latest proposal in Council has raised concerns, some advocates see it as a necessary if unpleasant step in a time of teacher layoffs and program cuts.

"We shouldn't need to do this, but let's go get the money," said Darren A. Spielman, president and CEO of the Philadelphia Education Fund. "We can't deliver the education our young people deserve or prepare and support our educators as they deserve unless we have resources on the table."

Brown noted that New York City generated $6 million last year from selling ads on school buses.

Nationally, the idea has bounced around for decades. In the late 1990s, a cash-strapped Texas district drew notoriety for its multimillion-dollar deal to let Dr Pepper paint the soft drink's logo on two school rooftops visible from airliners at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said the city should not enact such a law without careful consideration by the community.

"This is such an unusual way of raising money," the teachers' union leader said. "It really would be helpful to have members of the community weigh in. What kinds of things would they like to have banned from advertising in their neighborhoods, or do they even want it?"

Rebecca Poyourow, parent of two children at Cook-Wissahickon School, said she had "deep reservations" about the idea, even given the district's dire funding situation.

"I don't want advertisements to become in a sense the unwritten curriculum of my children's education," said Poyourow, who belongs to Parents United for Public Education, a citywide advocacy group. "When you put advertisements around a school building, whether inside or outside, it does seem an implicit endorsement of those products by the schools, and it will have an impact on their learning and their ability to interpret the message they get in advertising."

The bill would not allow tobacco or alcohol advertisements, and Brown said she was open to considering restrictions on ads for unhealthy foods. The SRC also could apply more stringent standards.

The Nutter administration did not testify on the bill during Tuesday's committee hearing, and the mayor's spokesman declined comment, as is customary with pending legislation.

Council passed a similar bill this year to allow advertising on city property, but President Darrell L. Clarke has repeatedly accused Nutter of dragging his feet on implementing the plan.

Parent Gerald Wright, for one, is hoping the city doesn't rush to start putting ads on schools.

"The rezoning of School District property is really problematic," said Wright, who is also a member of Parents United and whose children attend Constitution High and Jenks School. "It kind of breaks the public trust. ... Are we sacrificing the very sacred nature of the education of our children for small amounts of money in comparison to the need?"


tgraham@phillynews.com

215-854-2730 @troyjgraham

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