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Ga. school district looks at ads to make money

DORIE TURNER, AP Education Writer

ATLANTA — High schools have displayed advertisements on football fields for years, but one metro Atlanta school district hopes to slap the logos of major national companies on cafeteria trays, auditorium seat backs and salad bar sneeze guards to bring in money for cash-strapped schools.

The proposal before the Douglas County school board would mean the district's 37 schools could sell ad space pretty much anywhere in the building that's not a classroom. That could include napkins in the cafeteria, hallway floors, on instruments in the marching band and on the school's website.

"We've got to look for alternative funding," said school board member Mike Miller. "If done right, this could be a win-win for the system, for our children and for business."

It isn't the first time a Georgia district tried selling ad space to make money, but it's part of a growing trend of schools across the country turning to corporate partnerships to make up for dwindling tax dollars. Companies have traditionally sponsored schools, but increasingly those companies are asking for more advertising opportunities in exchange for those infusions of cash.

In Georgia, Cobb County sells space on the marquee signs outside high schools and on school websites. The Atlanta school board just voted to allow advertising space on athletic fields.

Jefferson County schools in Colorado signed a contract with First Bank of Colorado that includes advertising on 100 buses and company announcements during high school sporting events. Some school districts have taken it to the extreme, like Minnesota's St. Francis School District, which puts wraparound ads on lockers. In Martin County, Ky., the school store and a basketball tournament carry the name of Fast Lane, a local convenience store chain.

The trend has even spurred companies that broker deals between businesses and schools, sometimes for a hefty share of the profits.

Critics of such advertising say districts often don't make as much money as they had hoped in partnerships with companies and can harm children by exposing them to even more advertising than they see outside school.

"It's troubling to see advertising have a greater space in children's lives than it already does, especially in schools which should provide some kind of sanctuary from the onslaught of advertising kids face everywhere they go," said Elizabeth Ben-Ishai with Public Citizen, a consumer protection nonprofit in Washington. "It's a place where kids are supposed to learn critical thinking skills."

Douglas County chief financial officer Kay Turner said she's not sure how much the district could make from advertising, but the school will look for companies that "will have a positive impact on our students and their education." The district, situated west of Atlanta near the Alabama line, has about 25,000 students.

About a half dozen states allow bus advertising, including Florida, Tennessee and Arizona, a number that has grown in recent years as the economy lagged and schools scrambled to fill budget gaps. Some of the efforts are more local — a teacher at Pocatello High School in Idaho put ads for a local pizza eatery on the bottom of his handouts and worksheets in exchange for the restaurant shelling out the money for the copy paper.

Parents say they support the measure in Douglas County, which is grappling with more than $67 million in state cuts since 2003 and a $775 million decline in its property tax digest. District administrators first talked to parents and community members about the proposal before presenting it to the school board to ensure they had support, said parent Tyler Barr.

"I have great confidence in our leadership that they would target companies and brands that support education," said Barr, a Villa Rica resident whose son is a second-grader in Douglas County. "Parents know they would not put any advertising in front of our kids that would be inappropriate."