JEFFERSON CITY — Bright-yellow school buses could be outwardly splashed with advertisements with some additional ads inside for passengers heading to classes and field trips.
Cash-strapped Missouri school districts are receiving less funding from the state to help pay for transportation costs, so lawmakers have proposed allowing the sale of advertising space on school buses to give schools a financial boost.
Rep. Mike Kelley, R-Lamar, said many districts need the money after several years of tight budgets. He said advertising already is found around Missouri's schools, and permitting ads on buses could create a new revenue stream.
"Have you been to a football stadium, a basketball court or a baseball field for any of our local sport groups? If you have, you will notice advertising because, unfortunately, funding is not there, and that's why advertising has helped pay for sports programs in schools all across the state," Kelley said. "This is not a new concept."
One education official who supports the idea is Steve Chodes, the chief financial officer for the Springfield School District. His district anticipates receiving about $1.6 million for transportation assistance this school year — that's down from $2.4 million in the 2008-2009 academic year.
Chodes said Springfield schools are starting to consider whether it's feasible to place ads on the district's maintenance vans. He said it is impossible to know if the district would opt for ads on buses, but that it would be helpful to have the flexibility to do so.
"School districts are leaving no stone unturned to come up with additional sources of revenue," he said.
School bus advertising legislation narrowly passed the Missouri House this month and now will be considered by the state Senate. The proposed legislation would allow school boards to adopt advertising policies but would limit exterior advertising to the passenger side of the school bus, targeting pedestrians rather than risking an additional distraction for motorists. Any advertising inside school buses would be limited to health and safety-related messages.
The size of the ads would be restricted, and the state Board of Education would be responsible for developing regulations to prohibit ads containing sexual material, gambling, tobacco products, alcohol and political campaigns or causes.
Half of the revenue that schools would earn would need to be directed for fuel and student transportation costs. Local officials could use the remainder as they pleased.
About a dozen states allow some form of advertising on school buses, including Colorado, New Jersey, Tennessee and Texas. Other states have considered the idea. Officials say the concept popped up about 15 years ago and has surfaced during the two most recent economic downturns.
But school bus advertising has prompted concerns over safety and over targeting children with advertising they cannot avoid.
The Missouri School Boards' Association said selling advertising is worrisome, and cited a concern of the possibility that ads would cause particular controversy when emblazoned on a school bus.
"The intention is good in that it's an attempt to help us deal with the underfunding of school transportation," said Brent Ghan, a spokesman for the Missouri School Boards' Association. "We think that it's unlikely that it would really have a significant impact on that, and we just wonder if this is really an appropriate way to fund our school transportation system."
The National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services, which opposes ads on buses, warns that the advertising could distract other motorists and compromise bus features designed to attract attention and keep children safe. The organization said school buses' distinctive yellow hue has been a standard since 1939.
"The purpose of advertising is to get people's attention, and so, by design, it's getting people's attention to the advertising rather than the bus," said Bob Riley, the group's executive director.