2015-01-16 / Front Page

Rule change for schools: Advertising allowed?

Policy would open doors for business sponsorships in RSU 21
By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — The RSU 21 Board of Directors has unanimously approved the first reading of a new policy that would allow the district to accept corporate and business sponsorships not possible under current rules.

The proposal, which gives the district the ability to collect donations of money and materials based on financial, as well as educational benefit, also shifts the approval process for related advertising from the school board to the superintendent.

The current policy, last revised in 2012, requires a school board vote for any business sponsorship that involves a contract, or includes the display of advertising or sponsor logos for more than 30 days.

The new policy, if adopted, would give the superintendent or a designee the authority to make deals for advertising on school property. The superintendent would need to “seek the guidance” of the school board only as he or she “deems appropriate.” The only formal requirement is that the superintendent must issue a “regular report” to the school board at undefined intervals “regarding advertising in the schools.”

“One of the reasons that this came forward is that [Athletic Administrator] Joe Schwartzman is considering selling banners that we would post on the scoreboard or on the field to gather some money for the athletics program,” said Assistant Superintendent Kathryn Hawes at the school board’s Jan. 5 meeting.

Schwartzman is scheduled to present his banner idea to the school board in March, Hawes said. He purposely did not attend the Jan. 5 board meeting, she added, because, “He really wanted the policy to be separate from that one issue.”

Hawes did not say if Schwartzman has particular advertisers lined up at this time. However, she did note that such banners are not possible under the current policy, which requires that revenue from advertising provide “a significant benefit to the school program,” and be considered on its “educational value.”

The new policy allows the acceptance of advertising based solely on financial benefit to the district.

Although the vote to pass the new policy in its first reading was unanimous, not all school board members seemed immediately sold on the idea.

“I’m just wondering, is this a solution looking for a problem?” asked Kennebunk Director Jeffery Cole. “Is there a problem that this is addressing? If it’s all about the money, bid it out.”

“It is about the money in some respects,” said Hawes. “One of the things the athletic department needs to do is to replace the numbers that hang in the gym — they’re old and tattered. But knowing how tight the budget is and knowing that we want to be fiscally responsible, he [Schwartzman] has not prioritized that in his budget.

“So, he sees this as a way to accomplish things like that without burdening the local taxpayer,” Hawes said.

Although such a requirement is not specifically spelled out in the policy draft, Hawes said the district would manage the design and creation of any advertising banners, working though its own vendor, in order to keep them consistent.

Hawes said Schwartzman hopes to sell advertising for a full sports season, or across multiple seasons, which is why the school board will only have an advisory role.

“Clearly, that extends beyond the onemonth’s time, and we felt the board may not want to approve every single piece of advertising, but more globally approve that. As new things come up they would be brought to your attention. We want to be really transparent about the financial sponsorships.”

According to School Board Chairman Maureen King, the current policy was created in 1999 specifically to limit advertising in the schools. At that time, she said, Pepsi sweetened the pot for an exclusive vending machine contract by proposing to pay for a new scoreboard at the athletic field.

“There was a lot of pushback from parents who felt like their children were being subject to advertising all day, all around them, and the school was the one place that was not happening,” she said. “We all know that’s not true, but they don’t see that whole thing.”

Pepsi got the contract, but was only given permission to put the name of its bottled water product on the scoreboard. The new policy retains its original provision that advertising be allowed only for food and beverages “meeting the standards for distribution on school grounds in accordance with Department of Education rules.”

Also standing is a ban on any advertising for tobacco, alcohol, performance-enhancing substances, dietary supplements, weapons, and “weapons-related equipment,” as well as drugs, including both prescription and overthe counter medications.

A new section of the policy encourages “business/ school partnerships,” allowing businesses to serve as formal sponsors of school organizations or activities. That sub-chapter allows sponsorships to be approved by school principals, subject to review by the superintendent. Such partnerships would allow more prominent display of sponsor logos than currently allowed, but do require that the school department remain in charge of the actual program, and that it subject donated items to the same screening processes as materials purchased for the academic curriculum.

The district already enjoys corporate sponsorship of school groups, said King, pointing out that Corning Inc. gives money, equipment and mentoring to RSU 21’s award-winning robotics team.

“That’s huge,” King said. “A footnote at the bottom doesn’t seem like enough thanks to a company that’s willing to put this much time, effort and training into a project.

“I think we need to legitimize our business/ school sponsorships,” King said. “We are receiving more and more types of assistance and, as we go down this road of accepting more things, we wanted to have this language that protects the board and has some clarity around the acceptance of those materials and sponsorships.”

Although Cole expressed some reservations with the policy shift, most directors seemed practically enthusiastic about it, including Kennebunkport Director Robert Domine.

“I think it’s a great, great idea,” he said. “My only real concern is that, as a public school district, we may way, way underestimate how much people may be willing to pay. We should so some research on how much value there is there [in school advertising] because we don’t want to leave money on the table.”

Meanwhile, Kennebunk Director Matthew Fadiman likened the policy shift to his town’s new public skating arena and event complex, known as the Waterhouse Center, which was made possible, in part, by corporate advertising.

“It’s a wonderful community center, but when I go there with my kids I can’t help but notice that Kennebunk Savings Bank and Duffy’s are sponsors of that. But it’s done in a tasteful manner. Nobody feels that Duffy’s wants your kids only to eat french fries and beer. But it’s clear from their logos in the ice that they made a donation to make part of that center possible, and I’m hoping that’s the type of thing we’re thinking here.”

“That is exactly what we’re thinking,” King said. “At that time of the Pepsi thing we wanted more control, but we are seeing now that more businesses are wanting to have partnerships with us and we are wanting to making sure that is possible.”

The school board is expected to vote on a final reading of the advertising policy update at its Monday, Jan. 26 meeting.

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