"Times are hard," said Mike Gwizdala, director-transportation at Bay City public schools. "The fuel prices are definitely affecting all transportation, whether it's a school bus or a metro bus. It's definitely having an effect on a lot of people, and school districts are in that boat."
Terry Prewitt, executive director-financial services at Saginaw public schools, said he's reviewing several vendor proposals. He added that any ads would have to be "age-appropriate" and "subject-appropriate." Saginaw transports nearly 1,000 children every week. The vast majority of them are under age 12.
It is illegal to advertise on the outside of school buses in Michigan. Any ads must be placed inside.
Mike Eichhorn, president of Crossroads Marketing & Consulting in Davison, Mich., is one of the vendors competing for the Saginaw contract. He hopes to score business with major national advertisers by creating a cooperative of Michigan school districts. He also has had discussions with representatives of Bay City and Goodrich public schools and is meeting with Detroit public school representatives this week.
As a father of three, Mr. Eichhorn added that he is sensitive to parents' concerns about advertising to kids. He said he was surprised to see an ad for Tyson chicken and a Pepsi machine in the lunchroom when he recently dropped off his 6-year-old.
Michigan school districts have tried school-bus ads in the past, but the returns were disappointing. A spokeswoman for Michigan's Ypsilanti public schools said the district discontinued its advertising program because "it was not as successful as we had hoped." The district partnered with a credit union, a health center and a cellphone provider.
School-bus advertising has sprung up in other areas as well. Cherry Creek public schools in Colorado brought in $54,000 in bus-ad revenue last year. That was a little short of projections, said district spokeswoman Tustin Amole. The money was used to purchase GPS's and cameras for the buses.
Cherry Creek's major advertisers include local TV stations, recreational centers and even the U.S. Army. Ms. Amole said the school district avoids "junk food and other kinds of advertising," and that there have been no parental complaints since the program started in 2006. The ads, however, are on the outside of buses, not the inside.
Advertising to children, particularly in a captive environment, remains a thorny issue, especially considering pledges among food marketers blamed for America's obesity epidemic to limit marketing unhealthful food to children. The South Carolina School Board banned school-bus ads last week, and any measure undertaken in Michigan is likely to be controversial.
"Advertising on school buses exploits a powerful symbol of education and subverts parental authority by making exposure to brands compulsory," Josh Golin, associate director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, wrote in an e-mail.