Ad revenues tempt South Portland school board

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Speaking to the ongoing debate of whether South Portland schools should allow private companies to sponsor sports programs, Superintendent of Schools Ken Kunin said Monday that advertising revenue could never fully supplant the need for local taxpayer funding of teams.

However, he does believe that diversifying the school district’s revenue stream by allowing advertising could have a significant impact, particularly in terms of paying for coaching stipends that have been cut in recent years.

A divided Board of Education agreed Monday and gave Kunin permission to move forward on creating a plan that could allow businesses to advertise at Martin Field and Beal Gym, both at South Portland High School.

The vote was 4-3, with Richard Carter, Tappan Fitzgerald and Sara Goldberg opposed. In addition, the understanding was that Kunin would come back to the board with specifics, including pricing and the size of signs, before any advertising could go up at the high school.

Prior to the vote, the board listened to nearly an hour of public comment, with the majority of those present speaking in favor of the advertising idea, arguing that the ability to play sports is often the key to keeping kids interested in school and keeping their grades up.

In speaking to the board, Kunin said the school system must find ways to bring in additional revenue other than through raising property taxes, particularly if it wishes to continue to support a “full, rich and robust athletic program.”

He added that having a “predictable, stable source of revenue” would be helpful in putting together the budget each year. The school district, he said, has to be “as mindful as it possibly can when it comes to (increasing) taxes.”

Dick Matthews, the school board chairman, agreed with Kunin, and asked the other board members where they would suggest getting the revenue that’s needed.

“We need to do something,” Matthews said.

He urged the other board members to trust “the superintendent we hired. Let’s fund these sports.”

Goldberg voted against allowing Kunin to develop an advertising plan because she’s worried about the money going into the general fund and not being specifically earmarked for athletic expenses.

“I’m concerned that if someone is giving us money for a sign, they’re doing it to support athletics,” she said.

Goldberg said that it was clear from the public comment Monday that the expectation would be for the revenue earned to go toward sports.

But Kunin said it would be a hardship on the school district’s business office to manage a designated fund as Goldberg suggested, instead of just having the advertising dollars go into the general revenue budget.

He argued that putting the money into the general fund would increase the quality of the overall programming the school district can provide, even though that means the schools would not be able to point to a specific coach or set of new uniforms and say it came from the advertising of a specific business.

While Goldberg voted against opening up Martin Field and Beal Gym to advertising because it’s unclear where exactly that money would go, Carter and Fitzgerald were against the idea on principle.

“I don’t think advertising to students on school property is the way to go,” Carter said. He then called the idea, “inappropriate. It’s not a significant benefit and it’s not a good idea to expose our children to further advertising.”

And while Carter said he understands the intent is to keep any advertising “small, tasteful and local, you can’t put the genie back in the bottle.”

Both he and Fitzgerald were also concerned about who was going to decide what type of business advertising was appropriate.

“How are we going to decide this brand is OK, but this one isn’t? That’s a huge problem,” Carter said.

Fitzgerald agreed.

“I don’t see how we can do this equitably. How are we going to draw the line? And who will be the keeper of these decisions? For the amount of hassle this would expose us to, it just doesn’t make sense,” he said.

He also argued that advertising would “cheapen the look of the campus.”

But Mary House, another member of the school board, said, “We have a challenge every year about how to keep programs without increasing taxes. I have great confidence in the superintendent and the athletic director that this would be done tastefully and not be an eyesore or a distraction.”

While Karen Callaghan also voted in support of possibly allowing advertising at the high school athletic facilities, she also made it clear that she expects Kunin to come back to the board with “how this would work specifically,” before any ads are allowed.

Kunin said the school district spends about $738,000 on sports each year, not including the costs of transporting players to games or off-site practice sessions.

He doesn’t expect advertising to bring in much more than $30,000 or so, particularly in the first year, but said, “I feel we could grow the fund over time, and having additional sources of revenue would be helpful.”

The school district’s policy on advertising in the schools states, in part:

“Product advertising and/or endorsement should be discouraged in schools and on school property. The board has an obligation to ensure that students are not subjected to commercial messages that distract from the educational mission.”

However, the policy does give the superintendent the discretion to allow advertising when it can “clearly be shown to be of significant benefit (as) weighed against the nature of the exposure.”

Following Monday’s school board meeting, Kunin told the Current he sees his task now as “looking at the feasibility” of advertising and what it could look like if “we decide to move in that direction.”

Kunin said he and Livingston are still in the process of determining what the local market could bear in terms of pricing.

“There are businesses who’ve indicated they are supportive and interested, which is encouraging,” he said.

While Kunin doesn’t think another formal vote of the school board would be needed, he said he would present a fully vetted advertising plan before accepting any payment and putting up signs.

The South Portland School Department is weighing the feasibility of allowing advertising at Martin Field and Beal Gym, both located at South Portland High School.

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