Fla. lawmakers considering allowing school bus ads

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Advertising seems to be everywhere these days — on city transit buses, at sports stadiums, on airliner tray tables and even in public restrooms.

So why not on the exterior of school buses?

Florida is one of 34 states that prohibit such advertising, but three similar bills have been filed to lift that ban and provide a new funding source for cash-strapped school districts.

“We are in such tough times financially now that we have to look at various means to raise money,” Sen. Bill Montford said Friday.

Back in 2008, Lee County School Board member Jeanne Dozier pitched the same idea to raise money for the cash-strapped, budget-crunching school district.

“Some districts across the nation allow advertising in their school buses, we may have to,” Dozier said in 2008. “The people that sell milk, they would love nothing more than to allow us to advertise on the bus.”

The Tallahassee Democrat is sponsoring one of the bills (SB 344). It’s scheduled for its first committee hearing Jan. 9.

Critics, though, say school bus ads could be a safety hazard and legal headache.

“If I thought it was a safety issue I would not have filed this legislation,” said Montford, who’s also CEO of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents.

The Legislature’s Office of Program Policy Analysis & Government Accountability issued a report this week that makes no recommendation but cites opposition to school bus ads from the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services and Florida Association for Pupil Transportation.

Both groups say advertising intended to catch the attention of passing motorists also could distract them so they wouldn’t notice a bus has stopped or that students are getting on or off.

Montford said that shouldn’t be a problem as the ads will be relatively small. A House staff analysis of a similar bill (HB 19) says there’s been no specific research on the effect school bus advertising has on safety. It also notes, though, that the National Highway Safety Administration says the big, yellow school buses are eight times safer than smaller passenger vehicles.

The two pupil transportation groups also say it may be difficult to control the kinds of advertising allowed on buses and that defending a district’s ad policy might cost more in legal expenses than the advertisements bring in.

“We’re not going to put ads for condoms and liquor on the sides of school buses,” Montford responded.

The legislation would prohibit advertising for alcoholic beverages, tobacco products, prescription drugs, pari-mutuel wagering and anything sexual in nature. Also banned would be political ads, anything that’s misleading or deceptive and material that’s inappropriate, offensive or insensitive to children or the community. The House bill also would prohibit material “effecting the establishment of religion.”

Such limitations could raise legal issues under the free speech provision of the First Amendment, the critics say. Montford, though, noted there’s been advertising at public school athletic facilities for decades with similar restrictions and there have been no legal problems.

Florida is one of five states that currently allow advertising inside school buses, but no school district has yet permitted such ads, the legislative report says. It notes there’s a concern about the appropriateness of pitching products to a “captive audience” of children.

The House staff analysis says in Colorado, one of the states that allow exterior advertising, only 10 districts have chosen to put commercial messages on their buses. It’s estimated they raise $5,000 to $10,000 per bus annually.

The Florida bills would require that half of any funds raised by such advertising in Florida be used for school transportation.

Montford said he filed his bill in desperation after the Legislature cut school spending earlier this year.

“Quite frankly, I was somewhat reluctant to do it,” he said. But he added, “The need for discretionary funding for the schools is so great that this is a viable option. ... We’ve got to do something.”

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