By Maureen Hayden
CNHI Statehouse Bureau
---- — INDIANAPOLIS – Cash hungry schools may start selling ads on the sides of buses to make up millions of dollars lost because of property tax caps.
Legislation moving through the General Assembly would create a pilot program allowing a few districts to peddle the rights to place ads on buses. It would be the first step in what supporters envision as a statewide program making Indiana the latest state to allow schools to transform their yellow buses into rolling billboards.
“We don’t know yet how much money it will generate, but with the boat we’re in now, every little bit helps,” said Mike Shafer, chief financial officer for Zionsville Community Schools, which lost more than $500,000 in transportation funds last year due to property tax caps.
Zionsville administrators lobbied for the measure, and their district would be one of three in the pilot program. Other districts may soon follow.
“If it’s something a local community wants, I think the state should provide the option to do it,” said Rep. Todd Huston, R-Fishers, author of a larger school transportation bill that contains the advertising provision. “It’s not deemed as something that solves the larger problem, but it can be used as a complementary revenue source.”
Some Howard County superintendents were more hesitant about the possibility of advertising on buses.
“It’s pretty clear when people see a big yellow bus coming down the road that it’s carrying children. I wouldn’t want to do anything to change that,” said Ryan Snoddy, superintendent of Northwestern School Corp. “Having that advertising on the side could distract from their safety. We may have revenue issues, but that’s not the route I’d want to go.”
Schools have been hit hard by the tax caps passed by voters in 2010. While the caps saved property owners $704 million on their tax bills last year, schools lost more than $245 million in funds they used to keep buses running and to pay for other big-ticket items.
Some in the Statehouse question the wisdom of making up that money by selling space on buses.
“I’m sure it’s well intended,” said Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson. “But it does raise the larger question of what’s going on here when we can’t properly fund our school transportation systems.”
School officials in Muncie, in Lanane’s district, asked the state Department of Education last year for permission to end bus transportation when voters turned down a tax referendum to help pay for their buses. The state has denied the district’s request.
“It’s not good public policy to say transporting students to schools is optional,” Lanane said. “We need to find a solution other than having schools have to rely on selling advertising to keep their buses running.”
During a recent hearing, lawmakers questioned whether the school bus advertisements will distract and wondered how schools would decide who advertises. The bill restricts ads that promote alcohol, tobacco and other products forbidden to minors. It also bans political advertising and limits the ads to the outside walls of buses.
And it requires the state School Bus Committee – which usually deals with safety – to set advertising rules for schools.
Western School Corp. Superintendent Randy McCracken said he would “never say never” to advertising on school buses, but he also worried about what type of advertising would be permitted.
“Anyone who’s going to do that would have to come up with a good policy to delineate what advertising they would accept,” he said.
Money from the ads would have to go into districts’ transportation funds.
Zionsville officials say they have experience with advertising. The outfield fence around their baseball field is covered with advertising from banks, Realtors and other businesses. Yearbooks and programs for school events also carry ads from sponsors.
Shafer said schools also know how to censor inappropriate images, as well, having experience with dress codes that ban offensive messaging.
“We certainly wouldn’t allow things on our school buses that we wouldn’t allow inside our schools,” he said.
Since Colorado first allowed school bus advertising in 1993, 10 other states have followed. The revenue is typically a fraction of overall transportation costs: Colorado Springs schools, among the first in the country to sell ads on buses, generated only about $15,000 in advertising last year.
Safety concerns have caused some states to balk. In 2011, the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services came out against advertising on buses, noting the potential to distract passing motorists. But the association recognized the need for schools to find sources of revenue, so it set guidelines on school bus advertising that include limits on size and location.
Dennis Costerison, head of the Indiana Association of School Business Officials, said districts have pushed legislators in the past for permission to sell ads on their buses, getting nowhere. This time is different.
“We have schools losing millions from their transportation funds,” Costerison said. “They need to do something to keep their buses running.”
Kokomo Tribune reporter Lauren Fitch contributed to this report.
Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaureenHayden.