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Nashua Considers Ads At School Stadium

Sheryl Rich-Kern

As school districts continue to face budget cuts, administrators look for creative ways to fill in the gaps.  And that means that some schools are warming up to a concept that public educators used to reject: advertising.

In Nashua, the district wants to place electronic billboards at its stadium.  While many welcome the funding, some say commercialism doesn’t belong at public schools.

On a recent early evening in Nashua, a handful of parents sit on the bleachers at Stellos Stadium.  They’re watching the girls’ high school field hockey team rip shots toward the cage.

Under the waning light, the matted field glistens.

Its luster is deeply green.  The new turf cost the district nearly three quarters of a million dollars to replace last year.

While the stadium got upgrades, Nashua’s 17 schools cut corners to stay within its 95 million dollar budget.

The district reduced staff, dropped classes, eliminated the program for gifted students, and required athletes to pay to play.

But a new idea to place electronic advertising signs at the stadium may help the revenue stream and pay for updates like the next re-turfing.

Yet not all parents are content about the potential arrangement:

"My name is Bridget Willard. I have a senior, a junior and a freshman at Nashua High South. The discussion about having electronic signage here at the field is inappropriate. This is a school function and it should be about the kids and their sports and what they’re doing — and not about other people’s businesses."

This isn’t the first time the Nashua school district planned to advertise.

Dan Donovan is the school’ Chief Operating Officer.

He says three years ago, the district discussed placing ads on one of the high school’s exterior walls, which faces the highway.

"The principal at the school at the time was deadest against it. Her comment was, we shouldn’t be prostituting our schools. We had a nine-member board of education. It was six to three against putting any advertising on the actual school building."

That was then.

But today the school board wants to advertise at Stellos Stadium, which is not on school grounds, but exists for Nashua’s public school sporting events.

"It’s back off of a main road. The board was fine with that. The administration was fine with that."

Donovan says an electronic sign company in Hudson will recruit at least 13 advertisers — but no tobacco, alcohol or ammunition companies.

The Hudson business will pay for the signs, and then split the profits 50-50.

"With 13 advertisers, we expect we would receive about $23,000 a year."

Rich-Kern: Why is this a different scenario than the advertising proposal at the high school?

"I think the public is more comfortable with advertising at sporting events. It’s also at the sporting event – you don’t have to go to a sporting event. The child has to go to school on a daily basis."

The pairing of advertising with academics is on the rise across the nation.

"If you’re going to move the needle on helping to pay for public education, you’ve got to find a way to bring corporate America to the table."

That’s Mickey Freeman.  He’s the CEO of Education Funding Partners, a start-up firm in Colorado that links Fortune 500 advertisers with public school districts.

"The fact that public education has been in crisis since 2008 has finally been the tipping point of why more and more districts are way beyond what’s worse, you know, putting a few more brands in front of kids in a controlled environment — or having 40 kids per class, cutting field trips, cutting PE, arts and music."

Freeman estimates the market for corporate sponsorships ranges from a billion to a billion and a half dollars.

And the industry is growing.

According to the D.C.-based advocacy group, Public Citizen, at least ten of the country’s 25 largest school districts are running or considering advertising programs.

Elizabeth Ben-Ishai directs the program with Public Citizen.  She understands that kids are already bombarded with ads on TV or the Internet.  And that’s why she says, schools should offer a sanctuary from the medium.

"We think schools are places where students should be taught to think critically and question established ideas. And advertising seeks to generate the opposite response. It’s trying to get kids to come to one conclusion, which is buy this, purchase this."

Nashua’s school district expects to reap at least a hundred thousand dollars over a five-year period.  

Ben-Ishai says that’s a relatively small amount of money and questions if the intrusion of advertising is worth the trade-offs.

"This is a school district that has a budget of over 95 million dollars a year. Often times, the companies that arrange these kinds of advertising programs take a significant cut. It can be anywhere from 20 to 50 percent."

But Nashua school officials say the advertising program at Stellos Stadium is a win-win.  They don’t have to put up any funds — other than the nominal cost of electricity to operate the billboards.

The contract with the electronic sign company is not a slam-dunk deal.

The district plans to present it for approval to the board of education next month.

Sheryl Rich-Kern has been contributing stories for NHPR since 2006, covering education, social services, business, health care and an occasional quirky yarn that epitomizes life in New Hampshire. Sherylâââ

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