The nine elected men and women who govern the Austin school district will meet for a work session tonight aimed at tackling some of the options on the table for closing a projected budget gap of $94 million. One of those options would see advertising sold on the sides of school buses.
The proposal being investigated by AISD Chief Operating Officer Lawrence Fryer would split advertising revenue equally with the district and the vendor. AISD would retain full control over the content and type of advertising.
This table shows how much money Austin ISD thinks it can bring in from ads on school buses.
Year 1: 80 buses 20 percent of fleet $144,000
Year 2: 120 buses 30 percent of fleet $216,000
Year 3: 200 buses 50 percent of fleet $360,000
Year 4: 300 buses 75 percent of fleet $540,000
Year 5: 360 buses 90-100 percent of fleet $648,000
While some states ban advertising on school buses, it is permitted under Texas law. Hutto ISD claimed it was the first district in Central Texas to roll out school bus ads last month. Eanes ISD unveiled school bus ads of its own a few days later, and expects to reap $200,000 per year.
While AISD acknowledges there are safety considerations around school bus advertising - drivers might be distracted when children are on the road - other critics say it opens the door to increased commercialization of educational space.
"Exploiting a captive audience of school children by selling them to advertisers is not the answer to school funding problems," Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood spokesman Josh Golin told KUT News.
But so far, it appears most of the advertising is targeted at adults, not the children who ride the buses. Eanes ISD's clients include Chick-fil-A, Bee Caves Dermatology, Lake Hills Montessori School, Radiant Plumbing, and Austin Surgical Hospital, according to Community Impact Newspaper. In Hutto ISD, the Mansions at Star Ranch, Cost Cutters, and A+ Federal Credit Union are among the advertisers, reports KXAN. Austin ISD has not said which ad clients it would accept. Golin claims these districts are treading down a slippery slope.
"Once you say the side of our school bus is for sale, what happens if it is in fact a child targeted ad, a fast food company for instance, that's offering the most money for your school bus?" he asked. "The best thing for students is to have no ads on the side of school buses."
But that may be tough argument to make with local school districts facing reductions in state funding requiring teacher layoffs and other staff reductions. Austin ISD is eliminating 1,152 positions in the next school year, a nine percent reduction in staff.