Are the strings attached to the efforts of a company based in Troy, Michigan to help struggling school districts stay afloat too much? Some critics of a program to get local and national businesses to place banner ads on school websites say that the funding brought in by those ads might be too dearly bought.
The effort, called UNITE, was put together by the three-year-old Alternative Revenue Development, and has so far secured the participation of 53 Michigan school districts with 47 more joining next year. All over the state, financially strapped schools see UNITE as a way to make up the financial shortfalls left by falling property tax revenue and reduction in state and federal education funding.
ARD is at the forefront of a national trend that has schools scrambling for more money because of the economic downturn and state budget cuts, said Daniel Domenech, executive director of American Association of School Administrators.
"School districts are desperate for any source of revenue that will help them maintain some of the services they've been able to provide in the past, so advertising is an easy way to do it," Domenech said.
Schools allowing fundraising space on their website is a fairly recent development — and an alarming one according to Public Citizen, a Washington D.C. based group that takes aim at what it sees as commercialism in schools. In a report released last year, the group wrote that the miniscule .3% of school budgets raised in this fashion was hardly worthwhile when considering the real harm that could result from giving advertisers access to the children of a highly susceptible age.
Specifically, Public Citizen takes issues with advertisers that push unhealthy food products in contravention of the goals set by both local and federal government to help students make healthier choices to reverse high rates of childhood obesity around the country. The impact of eat-healthy programs could be substantially reduced when children are exposed to advertisement by companies like Little Caesars Pizza.
Sam Curcuru, the CEO and founder of ARD, says that Public Citizen's concerns are misplaced since advertisers are targeting the parents rather than the children, and that school districts desperate for funding are happy to take advantage of any opportunity to raise money.
Since buildings and fixed costs like salaries comprise a large chunk of the school operating budget, ARD makes a difference with a district's remaining discretionary budget, Curcuru said.
"Then you see a budget that might be only a couple of thousand dollars, and that is spread over an entire district," he said.