With funding tight, expenses ever increasing and limits set on how high taxes can be raised, school leaders find themselves looking for new ways to raise revenues.
One idea emerging locally is selling advertising space on school district websites, an effort that requires little to no financial investment by school districts but can provide some new, though modest, income.
More than a hundred school districts in Michigan have been displaying ads on their websites for the past several years through contracts with the firm Alternative Revenue Development in Troy, Mich. The firm is now lobbying school districts in Westmoreland County to join its network of schools across seven states, a proposal that is being considered by the Greater Latrobe Area School District.
The Seneca Valley School District has sold advertising space on its website since the beginning of the school year through an agreement with Thought Process Enterprises of Ellwood City. That firm is in discussions with other districts north and west of Pittsburgh about the possibility of entering into contracts for the coming school year and beyond.
Seneca Valley estimates it will make about $35,000 this year from the ads on its website and its monthly email newsletter, said Linda Andreassi, the district's director of communications.
She and superintendent Tracy Vitale give final approval for the ads selected.
The district has a disclaimer on its website making it clear that it does not endorse any of the products or services advertised on district sites. To date, no controversies or complaints have surfaced about the ads, which have included home remodelers, jewelers, speech therapists and insurance agents.
Greater Latrobe Area is negotiating a proposed contract with Alternative Revenue Development, which gave a presentation to Westmoreland County school districts in recent months.
'Looking at everything'
Greater Latrobe superintendent Judy Swigart said discussions about new revenue sources started in her district two years ago when Pennsylvania school districts saw a significant reduction in their state funding -- a reduction attributed largely to the loss of federal stimulus funding.
"We've looked at everything since then. We even looked at advertising on school buses, but that is not permitted," Mrs. Swigart said.
Mrs. Swigart said officials in her district were impressed with Alternative Revenue Development's track record of raising money for school districts in Michigan.
She said some of the Michigan districts reported receiving about $25,000 in annual revenues. She said she was told her district could expect about $10,000 annually to start.
"This isn't something that will change what we do. But it will help to generate revenue to sustain something," Mrs. Swigart said. She said some districts plan to use the money for purchases such as sports team or band uniforms.
That's exactly the idea that firms are trying to sell.
"We refer to it as funds for after-the-bell type of activities," said Samuel Curcuru, president and CEO of Alternative Revenue Development.
Alternative Revenue Development and Thought Process Enterprises are just two of the firms that are marketing website advertising to school districts. But Mrs. Swigart and other school officials said they have heard from other firms in other states.
Regardless of the firm, the idea being marketed to school districts is that local, regional and national advertisers are interested in catching the attention of a key demographic group: adults between the ages of 25 and 40.
The logic behind the concept is that many visitors to school district websites are parents who likely fall into that age range and who are purchasing big ticket items such as cars and homes and paying for services such as lawn care, home improvement and car repairs. They're also likely paying for orthodontic or speech therapy services, buying insurance and making decisions about cable, Internet and phone service.
"People between the ages of 25-40 are an advertiser's dream," said Bob Phillips, director of marketing and new business development for Thought Process Enterprises, the Ellwood City firm selling advertising for the Seneca Valley website.
In Michigan, Alternative Revenue Development has been able to sell ads for several school districts. The ads include companies that provide home improvements and discount tires as well as orthodontists, photographers, landscapers, fitness studios, nurseries and tutoring services.
"We know that we are onto something. We are looking to have superintendents and school boards across seven states have some discretionary funds that they can utilize," Mr. Curcuru said. "We have come up with what we think is a tasteful and well-managed way of taking and monetizing a school district's resources."
On the Michigan school district websites, ads scroll across the top of the home pages.
Alternative Revenue Development also has ads on district websites in New Jersey and hopes to add schools in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and New York as well as Pennsylvania.
While revenues are modest now, they could grow if large networks of schools are created to carry the ads. The more schools in the network, the better the chance of picking up national advertisers and seeking higher rates for ads. Although there is no guarantee of big returns in the future, the risks to districts are relatively low since startup costs are very little.
"It helps for us to cluster districts and states. We find that national and regional sponsors cluster in areas," Mr. Curcuru said.
For individual districts, revenue figures depend on the traffic on the website and the number of pages that carry ads, Mr. Phillips said. Seneca Valley displays ads on the district's home page and on the pages of individual schools.
Mr. Phillips said he is in discussions with about a dozen other districts north and west of Pittsburgh about placing ads on their websites. "They are waiting to see how this would work out for Seneca Valley, to see if they got any backlash from parents or backlash about seeing ads on their website," Mr. Phillips said.
So far there has been none, according to Mr. Phillips and Ms. Andreassi.
Mr. Phillips and Mr. Curcuru said district officials sometimes express concern about the possibility of an offensive ad being placed on their websites, but both said their firms give districts total control over which ads are accepted. The Greater Latrobe school board in March adopted a policy on commercial advertising on school property and the website that requires all sponsorships and partnerships to be approved by the board.
Thought Process charges no upfront fee, but districts must provide some hours of work time from the employee who maintains the website, Mr. Phillips said. Alternative Revenue Development charges a web integration fee, the amount of which depends on the sophistication of a district's website. The fee varies and is capped at $1,425 and is taken out of the district's ad revenue.
In addition to the website, Seneca Valley has advertising in the district's email newsletter that goes to 12,700 email addresses each month. Those ads are sold by School Newsletter Co., which produces the layout and design of the newsletter
Single sponsor sought
In North Allegheny, the district's home page does not carry advertising, but the district is considering seeking a single sponsor for the site, communications director Joy Ed said.
The North Allegheny Sports Network, which is linked to the district website, does carry ads. Ms. Ed said the sports website, which is operated and funded separately from the district, is the brainchild of athletic director Bob Bozzuto. Revenues are used to support district athletic programs.
Also, North Allegheny for the first time this year sold advertising for its monthly district e-newlsetter.
In Pine-Richland, administrators are considering the concept of website ads. "We are in the exploration stage," communications director Rachael Hathhorn said. She said the district has been contacted by several firms interested in providing advertising for the district website and the idea is expected to be discussed by the school board at an upcoming meeting.
"Obviously, talking about revenue generators has been a big topic for school districts," she said.
Mary Niederberger: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1590. First Published May 16, 2013 4:00 AM