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Tight budgets make advertising sales a more tempting option for schools

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FARGO - School districts facing budget cuts around the nation are increasingly turning to advertising to make up the difference between declining revenues and rising costs.

In the Twin Cities area, some districts sell ads on websites or let firms wrap ads on wall lockers or put them on floors and walls of schools.

Elsewhere in the U.S., school buses are no longer just for moving students to and from school. They're moving billboards, too.

That hasn't happened in this part of the Red River Valley yet. However, some officials say that if Minnesota's budget ills continue, ads could become more commonplace locally.

"To do advertising, you're walking that fine line," says Hawley, Minn., Superintendent Phil Jensen.

Hawley has a corporate sponsorship program that brings in $18,000 a year. It's paid for scoreboards, theater microphones and an ATV to haul equipment and injured players, Jensen said.

If Minnesota cuts K-12 funding further, that may change, he said.

"We've got to start thinking outside the box in terms of what are some other sources of revenue," Jensen said.

In Detroit Lakes, Minn., some ads are flashed on a video board in the gymnasium, said Superintendent Doug Froke.

A booster club uses the proceeds to buy things like uniforms and equipment, he said.

"We don't do anything on lockers ... and I don't know if we would in the future," Froke said. But if budgets get tight, "that might be something that we'd explore."

Generally, school ads in the Red River Valley are low-profile.

Typically, companies that help buy a scoreboard or fix a ballfield get a banner on-site as a thank you. School yearbooks, newspapers and programs also get boosts from local businesses.

Advertising could take a higher profile in coming years if pressure on school budgets continues.

Minnesota's K-12 funding squeeze has led to an increase in requests for operating levies from voters in recent years.

In 2010, roughly half of the more than 70 levies sought by school districts passed. Levies in Moorhead, Fergus Falls and Park Rapids all passed.

In November, 113 of the state's 337 school districts will ask voters for an operating levy, with 20 more seeking other levies, a Minnesota School Boards Association poll reports.

North Dakota school funding from the state has improved significantly in the past couple legislative sessions. But if a bid to end property taxes is approved by voters in June, local schools could suffer. Property taxes are a big part of school budgets, and it's unclear whether the state can make up for income lost by local governments.

What's out there?

In the Twin Cities, Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan Public Schools have ads on the district website.

"Advertise Here! Reach parents in Minnesota's 4th largest district," the site proclaims.

Thirty miles north of Minneapolis, St. Francis School District just signed a two-year contract with School Media to continue putting ads on lockers.

A one-year experiment last year didn't bring in as much money as hoped - about $55,000, one-third of original estimates, said Community Services Director Tom Larson.

But the colorful ads are geared to students and are well-accepted, he said.

"I have not in the past year have heard one complaint. So, if we can bring additional dollars into the district, I'm all for it. If school funding continues to decline as it has, we're going to look at a myriad of ways" to keep from cutting teachers or curriculum offerings, Larson said.

School Media, based in the Minneapolis suburb of Coon Rapids, has ads in about 110 schools around the U.S., said Janet Miller, the chief operations officer.

"We could easily bring aboard more than 3,000 school districts," given the interest, Miller said. However, "we don't take on another school district until we have the advertisers."

Some states allow ads on buses, among them, New Jersey, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Tennessee, Texas and Utah. Other states have been debating the merits, including Florida, Kentucky and Ohio.

Texas-based Alpha Media's website proclaims:

"Your message can now been seen on the side of a bright yellow school bus like a rolling billboard! ...

"Our advertising programs with local school districts give you the opportunity to spread your message in an affordable and unique style that cannot be ignored!"

"There's a lot more support," than in previous years, said Michael Beauchamp, president of Alpha Media. School districts "are even more broke."

Ads on school buses are problematic in this region. Minnesota law doesn't allow ads on the outside of buses, said Dan Bacon, Moorhead School District's director of property services and transportation.

The idea is that anything other than needed lettering on a school bus detracts from its uniqueness, making it less safe, Bacon said.

Ads are allowed on the inside of buses, said Mike Howard, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Education.

There is nothing in the North Dakota Century Code about ads on buses, said Ken Steiner, director of student Transportation for the Department of Public Instruction.

Instead, the state has stuck with national school bus standards, which don't favor ads, Steiner said.

"I think that we would call that a district policy decision," Steiner said.

In fact, Mandan (N.D.) School District did try ads on some buses seven years ago, Superintendent Wilfred Volesky said, though the experiment didn't last.

"Honestly, I don't believe they received a great deal of income from that," Volesky said.

In the Fargo-Moorhead area, most school ads and their revenues are tied to athletics or other co-curricular activities.

Perhaps the most noticeable advertising is seen in the Fargo and West Fargo school districts, where large electronic signs in front of West Fargo High School and Fargo North High have ad space for sale.

In both cases, the revenues go to booster clubs to buy co-curricular equipment or underwrite travel expenses, officials said.

Fargo also has a policy on naming rights for facilities such as ball fields, a library or gym. A donor would have to pay 25 percent of the project's cost to name a facility, Business Manager Broc Lietz said.

Naming rights for an event requires ponying up 50 percent of the cost of the event, Fargo's policy says.

As for ads on walls or lockers, Fargo Superintendent Rick Buresh says he doesn't like the idea.

"Our walls and the advertising we do in our buildings needs to be focused on instruction," Buresh said. "I don't think that school is the place we want to be selling Fritos or Pepsi. We don't want our schools to look like a (minor) league ball diamond."

Moorhead School District takes advertising to help pay for its Hall of Honor banquet and for its course catalog, spokeswoman Pam Gibb said.

The football stadium was also paid through donations, with donors acknowledged at the entrance, Gibb said.

Deb Wanek, the district superintendent in Pelican Rapids, Minn., said an expansion of advertising in schools should be a community decision.

"I think the policy would have to be carefully crafted. In schools, if you allow someone to come in, you'd have to allow everyone to come in," Wanek said. "I think there are opportunities for that. I just think it has to be carefully done."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583