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Proposal allows test of school bus ads

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Seven years ago Franklin Community schools wouldn’t have considered putting advertisements on the side of school buses, but that was before the school district was short on cash.

Franklin is anticipating losing about $3.5 million per year for the next decade because of property tax caps, and the school district needs any money officials can find to help replace buses, pay drivers and put enough fuel in them to keep them running.

The school district already raises money by renting its buildings and the high school’s performing arts center and has cut expenses by restructuring its debt and eliminating 18 teaching positions. Now, state lawmakers are considering another option for schools.

Legislators are considering a bill that would allow three central Indiana school districts — Beech Grove, Franklin Township on the southside and Zionsville — to start a pilot program selling ads on their buses. Those ads could generate tens of thousands of dollars, which would make up for some of the money school districts lose because of property tax caps.

An amendment for the pilot program was added in the Senate to a House bill dealing with local government finance. The bill was approved in the Senate and has been sent back to the House for approval.

If the bill is approved and the ad program expands, that could give some local schools a way to make additional money to cover transportation costs.

In Johnson County, Clark-Pleasant, Edinburgh and Franklin schools have had to shorten bus routes, delay building upgrades and put off hiring staff because property tax caps are limiting what school districts and other governments can collect to cover those costs. Area school districts also periodically have had to charge student athletes for the cost of taking them to and from competitions and games.

Franklin officials will be watching to see how well the advertising pilot works for the three school districts, if it’s approved. Previous school board members haven’t always been comfortable with the idea of advertising on school property, but Franklin needs all of the revenue it can get, executive director of finance Jeff Mercer said.

“We’re always on the lookout to try and find ways to increase the revenue stream within reason. And that’s one that potentially would be available to us,” Mercer said.

Franklin officials have been cautious about selling ads or naming rights in the past.

The school district has sponsorships with Johnson Memorial Hospital and other businesses and allows them to hang banners at sporting events. But Franklin has stopped short of selling naming rights to its football stadium or other properties, partly because school board members don’t want to diminish the school district’s name, Mercer said.

If the bill is approved, Franklin officials will watch to see how much money the three school districts make, Mercer said.

“I’m sure we’ll keep a close eye and determine how well they’ve done,” he said.

Beech Grove loses about $3 million, or about 30 percent of the property tax dollars it receives annually to cover expenses such as building repair and transportation. Selling ads on the school district’s 31 buses could collect more than $30,000 in revenue per school year — about $1,000 per bus — which could pay for field trips and other opportunities for students that Beech Grove can’t afford right now, Superintendent Paul Kaiser said.

Kaiser wants Beech Grove to be able to provide more trips for students to the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis or the Conner Prairie Interactive History Park in Fishers. Right now Beech Grove doesn’t have the money to afford the cost of fuel or drivers for field trips, meaning if a teacher wants to take students outside the classroom for a lesson, families must pay the whole cost, Kaiser said.

“This is a great opportunity for our school district to generate revenue and money that can go directly back to kids,” Kaiser said.

Beech Grove officials are still deciding how much bus space could be used for ads, as well as what kinds of businesses and companies the school district would sell ads to. Those decisions will be made by Kaiser and other administrators.

“I think we need to go slow and make sure we’re partnered with the right businesses that really represent and send a message that’s good for our kids and our community,” Kaiser said.

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