School Bus Advertising: All Wrapped Up in Red Tape

John Mooney | August 4, 2011 | Education
Four pages of proposed regulations for a one-page law help explain why NJ school buses have that bare look

Enacted this winter with overwhelming support, the New Jersey law allowing districts to sell advertising on the sides of school buses was a sign of the times, a chance for cash-strapped school systems to raise any revenue they could.

And as simple as the original idea sounded, nothing about it has been easy. Proof could be seen in the four pages of regulations before the state Board of Education yesterday, all for a one-page law.

The new regulations define how the ads should be attached to a bus, what the ads can contain, who would handle the transactions, and how it all would be tracked.

More than Nuts and Bolts

“The nuts and bolts of this are more difficult than just slapping a sign on a bus,” said Dorothy Shelmet, who leads the state’s Office of Student Transportation.

Actually, under the proposed regulations a district could neither slap a sign on a bus nor use nuts and bolts.

Shelmet explained to the board that part of the process that has taken so long is having a number of agencies looking at the proposal, most notably the Motor Vehicle Commission, which regulates and inspects school buses.

And she said the MVC has been adamant that framed signs could not be used for safety reasons.

“They are very concerned about anything that could catch on backpacks, clothing, anything like that,” she said. “There is a great deal of concern about anything that would extend out and maybe get caught on a drawstring.”

That leaves the main option being the large decals that have grown more commonplace on public buses. But they also cost more, board members said.

“I think we are being overfraught in terms of the danger of this,” said Ilan Plawker, the board’s vice chairman.

Another member said the board should do its best to minimize regulations on districts, not add them. “We should be looking for as little regulation as possible, said Andrew Mulvihill.

Shelmet said the MVC was insistent. “If they say they will fail buses on inspection, the last thing we want is buses being pulled off the road,” she said.

“Is nobody standing up to say this is nonsense?” Plawker responded.

Age-Appropriate Content

But that was just the beginning. The regulations also stipulate what is allowed and not allowed in terms of content. The law itself prohibited alcohol and tobacco and any political advertising, and left other guidelines to the state education commissioner. Ultimately, the local board of education has the final say.

Still, the regulations propose a long list of prohibitions. They range from the innocent (nothing resembling a traffic sign) to the age-appropriate (nothing sexually suggestive) to the trickier call (nothing “false, misleading, deceptive, disrespectful, fraudulent, or libelous”).

And certainly no “Vote yes for the school budget” ads. “The board of education shall not allow any of its school buses to become a public forum for dissemination, debate, or discussion of public issues,” reads one provision.

No major objections were raised by the board yesterday, and members will have plenty more time to pore over the regulations. The presentation yesterday was the board’s first discussion, with at least three more meetings to consider the details, as well as a public hearing.

That should take it close to the anniversary of the bill being signed, and it is uncertain how many ad-enhanced buses the public will see even then. The law only allows for buses owned or leased by a local district, which excludes the state’s private bus companies, which operate about 60 percent of the routes.

In March, the New Jersey School Boards Association did report some support among its members for the idea, with a survey finding 66 percent of respondents saying districts should be allowed such revenue options.

But Shelmet said she has yet to hear of much interest from local districts, saying none have contacted her. “The only ones who have contacted us are ad agencies,” she said.

Editor’s note: The original version of this story identified four districts that the New Jersey School Boards Association said in March were interested in selling bus advertising. The list was derived from news articles published after enactment of the law, and board officials said the interest was not confirmed and at least one district has said it is no longer interested. The districts’ names have been removed from the article to avoid any confusion.