St. Paul school board allows more advertising in buildings, on website
Mila Koumpilova, Pioneer Press, April 17, 2012 –
The St. Paul district has opened the door to more advertising in its schools with the approval of a new ad policy.
The district’s two-sentence old policy only explicitly sanctioned advertising in district publications, which had led St. Paul to parry most overtures from interested advertisers. The new one spells out allowable advertising at school and on the district website.
In the run-up to the final approval Tuesday, April 17, the board split on one thorny issue: Should the district policy explicitly ban ads on lockers and hallway walls? Ultimately, the board rallied around a more general rule to steer clear of school areas where ads would be “directed principally at students,” without putting any off-limits.
“There’s a sense that we’ve been missing opportunities,” said Joe Munnich, the district’s administrator of policy and planning. “Now, we have clear direction from the board.”
Other districts have also increasingly grappled with advertising dilemmas, torn between a rare chance for fresh revenue and unease over supplying advertisers with a captive young audience.
The board set out to revisit its advertising policy last fall. At the time, it approved three digital signs for high school gyms – after members pointed out the district’s restrictive policy might not even allow that opportunity.
Board member Anne Carroll said then that the policy had led the district to say no to key corporate donors interested in school advertising. But the board hesitated to change the policy out of fear of opening a “Pandora’s box” of ethical and logistical concerns.
The cornerstone of the new policy is a rule that advertising belongs in venues such as auditoriums and gyms where the general public, rather than students alone, would see it. At one point, the board considered adding examples – classrooms, hallways and lockers – of areas that didn’t make the cut.
But while there was consensus classrooms were off-limits, lockers and hallways were more of a gray area to some members.
“This is our potential biggest source of revenue,” Jean O’Connell, who chairs the board, said at a meeting last month. “If we exclude it as a possibility, we’ll never know what we’re turning away.”
Members brought up as an example the atrium at Harding Senior High School, where lockers are among the first things all visitors see.
But other members wanted to see an explicit prohibition.
“These are our children who have to go to school; they are a captive audience,” said member Louise Seeba. “I can’t think of anything that’s more directed at students than a locker.”
Added Carroll about locker ads, “To me, this is an incredibly crass manifestation of commercializing our students and their lives and their choices.”
The board decided to omit all examples of off-limits areas, weighing advertising opportunities on a case-by-case basis. The board, which normally approves only larger contracts, will review all advertising proposals in the next 18 months.
In 2010, St. Francis became the first Minnesota district to place advertising on lockers – a development that drew national attention thanks to a Time magazine story. Since then, 14 districts in Pennsylvania, California, Wisconsin and Minnesota have followed suit in enlisting the services of Coon Rapids-based School Media, which places advertisements on lockers, hallway walls and floors.
In Minnesota, Forest Lake and North Branch now work with the firm, and company executive Janet Miller expects the list of local clients to grow next fall. The ads – for entities such as AAA, Cub Foods, 3M and Lifetime Fitness – have helped pay for new technology and save sports programs from the chopping block, Miller said.
But other districts have balked at opening up lockers and hallway walls to advertising. Last year, after parents raised concerns, West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan tabled a $100,000-a-year locker ad proposal from School Media.
Mila Koumpilova can be reached at 651-228-2171. Follow her at twitter.com/milapipress.