Big Business is going back to school.
Logos emblazoned on flags and banners, scoreboards, pop machines, even bathroom stalls, have found a home in public schools in Utah and across the country.Strapped by tight budgets, some school districts see advertising revenues as a quick and easy cash flow. Some say the money maintains activities and stocks schools with TVs, VCRs and, potentially, computers, all for exposing kids to a few brand names they see all the time anyway.
But others question the fairness of boosting product name recognition within the sanctuary of schools, where learning, not consumerism, should be the No. 1 concern.
"This is a very difficult, a very controversial issue, and one that requires the use of judgment and discretion every step of the way," said Jordan Superintendent Barry Newbold, who receives as many as 15 advertising revenue offers a week. "What's controversial about that is where's the limit and are our students couriers for businesses? I don't think they are. We have to be very careful."
Since the 1980s, Utah schools have been building partnerships by letting companies donate time, money and materials.
Administrators at Eisenhower Junior High, like many other schools, say the banners and flags flown outside the school are a way of saying thanks to those who help out. Employees at local businesses volunteer about 4,000 hours every year, said principal Lori Gardner.
Gardner says students don't pay much attention to the banners or other advertisements, but one recently caused a ruckus. Animal rights activists targeted Eisenhower Junior High because it flew the flag of one of its corporate sponsors, McDonald's.
Now, the activists are suing the Granite School District and Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office for allegedly denying their rights to protest. The school replaced the McDonald's pennant with an outdoor banner like those afforded other business partners such as Little Caesar's.
But if parent and former Salt Lake City School Board member Kent Michie had his way, schools would display no corporate logos.
"If someone wants to donate man hours, let's donate man hours and not make an advertising budget out of it," said Michie, also the vice president of public finance at Zions Bank. "I'm not throwing rocks out there at anyone . . . but somewhere, we need to draw the line."
The Utah PTA, which raises money for schools, eschews business partnerships wanting to put ads in schools and using corporate logos for commercial purposes. Still, it believes in recognizing businesses supporting education.
That makes for some fine-line drawing, a difficult task for any group.
Last year, the Legislature assembled a task force of parents and educators to study possible school ad revenue, restrictions and policies.
The task force discovered several school districts had rules that could not be condensed under an umbrella policy. So, it recommended those without policies create one and sent out sample rules to help out.
This year, the Education Appropriations Subcommittee took a stand on ads in one medium, Channel One. It said the in-school newscast's two-minute ad slot could not be counted toward the 990 school hours required each year. Committee chairman Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, said the two minutes amounted to several million dollars meant for meaningful instruction.
Channel One, a 12-minute newscast geared toward secondary schoolchildren, is coupled with social studies lessons in some schools. The company says five times more teens watch its broadcast than watch network news and CNN combined.
But Channel One brings more than touted educational value. It hands out free TVs.
Some school districts, such as Salt Lake City, passed on the offer. But others, such as Jordan, gladly signed on to showing the broadcast for at least three years, the time required to keep the television sets.
"Channel One is not without its controversy because it is the notion of a captive audience . . . (but) its content is shown to be valuable," Superintendent Newbold said. His teachers about four years ago gave a thumbs up to Channel One, and he renewed the contract.
"There probably is a place for advertising in the schools, especially if the schools have formed a legitimate business partnership and . . . revenues generated through advertising are used to enhance the educational program for all of the students," he said. "As an educator, I prefer to draw the line on the very conservative side."
That's why he recently passed on another business' offer to give planners to his 73,000 students. The planners advertised celebrities and TV programs that might be viewed as inappropriate for children. Newbold says he was criticized for the decision.
Other businesses have found a niche in schools. Soda pop machines are a mainstay, and Coke or Pepsi duke it out for exclusive contracts. Schools are the real winners, pocketing thousands of dollars up front for student activities, says Woods Cross High assistant principal Beth Beck.
"If we took the pop and candy machines out of the schools, we would be a mess," Beck said. "We have to sustain our programs some way. We don't get enough from our tax base. If we assessed fees to the full cost, it would really be prohibitive."
That's why the Davis County school was bowled over by a recent warning from the Utah Department of Transportation. Sponsors signs surround the school's baseball field, like any other. But Woods Cross High has no permit for the signs, which can be seen from I-15. And that's against the law.
UDOT asked the school, which gleans about $2,500 to $3,000 from sponsors, to remove the signs by March. A year ago, Granger High School had to turn their signs from freeway view to comply with the 1965 Lady Bird Johnson Act, limiting advertising along state roads.
While those revenues could be in jeopardy, another cache could be waiting in the wings.
Imagine: a media center with 15 top-of-the-line computers, wired to the Internet and a special intranet with 10,000 top educational sites. Not to mention laser printers, technology training for teachers and technical support. All for free.
That's how The ZapMe! Corp. wants to outfit 2,500 of the nation's schools -- hard pressed for equipment and teachers who know how to use it -- by year's end. The company, billed as an equalizer for schools, already has more than twice as many applicants.
The catch: advertising. Corporations, as well as nonprofit agencies and universities, buy ads accessible through a point and click of the computer mouse. Corporations such as Compaq and Toshiba donate hardware, hoping name recognition sticks with the child in future purchases, said ZapMe! president and chief operating officer Frank Vigil.
Computer logins, all in aliases, relay age and gender information about the browser. Companies can target ads accordingly; a Nike ad would ditch Michael Jordan for a WNBA star when a girl is browsing, for instance.
Sen. Dave Steele, R-West Point, and a Davis School District employee, visited the company, based in San Ramon, Calif., and suggests his district check out the prospect.
"The businesses' promotional associations with ZapMe! is unobtrusive, low key and neither pervasive nor persuasive at the expense of young minds," Steele said. And the computers allow kids to develop skills necessary for tomorrow's workplace.
Such partnerships are the type Daphne Williams would like to see more of in the Salt Lake City School District, where ads are "basically a no-no."
"I just think the nature of the need for outside funding for schools may make it important for us to look at (advertising revenue) with some guidelines. I don't believe in plastering the outside of a school with various signs. But I think if (a business is) donating things of use to the school, it may be something we'd have to overlook," said Williams, director of the district's foundation.
"I think it's a no-brainer."