To some people, a school bus is a big, yellow beast full of rowdy kids.
To Irv Slosberg, it's untapped potential, a rolling billboard that could help school districts rake in money.
Slosberg, a Democratic state representative from Boca Raton, is pushing a bill that would allow school districts to sell ads on the sides of school buses.
Given the rates that he says some districts outside Florida charge ($2,000 to $5,000 per ad), he figures thousands of school buses in Florida could swat down tens of millions of dollars annually. And given historically deep cuts in state education spending, he says that's not chump change.
"Why shouldn't our children get the benefit of that, rather than get education dollars cut?" Slosberg said Wednesday. "We should be looking around for every last penny."
A similar bill went nowhere in the House last year. But with the possibility of more budget cuts looming, Slosberg expects it has a better chance in the 2012 session, which begins Jan. 10.
Two similar bills have been filed in the Senate, including one by Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, who also heads the state superintendents association. Slosberg's bill has Republican co-sponsors in Rep. Bryan Nelson, R-Apopka, and Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole.
"It wouldn't be like NASCAR," Ahern said of the ads. "It would be done in a tasteful manner, like the city buses are."
Slosberg's bill would limit ads to the outside. It includes a list of restrictions, including ads that promote alcohol, tobacco or prescription drugs; that are sexual in nature; and that "promote an illegal activity or antisocial behavior." Districts could come up with additional conditions, Slosberg said.
One School Board member had mixed feelings. One expert on commercialism in schools said there were downsides.
The Pinellas school district definitely needs to look at potential revenue streams, including advertising, and it needs to have a thoughtful discussion about pros and cons, said School Board member Peggy O'Shea. The district has roughly 500 buses, she said, and "that's a substantial amount of visibility."
On the other hand, O'Shea said she worried about a provision in Slosberg's bill that mandates where the revenue will be spent: 50 percent for district transportation, 10 percent for driver's education and the rest up to district discretion.
If the district chooses not to allow advertising, will it see gaps grow between what the state provides in funding and what the district has to chip in? she asked.
"Is this another way of supplanting money from Tallahassee?" O'Shea said, referencing long-festering gripes about the Florida Lottery and its contributions to school funding. "I don't want to see them supplant other funding and say, 'You need to sell advertising.' "
Florida isn't the only state looking at school buses — and other school property — in a whole new way.
Five states, including Florida, allow ads on the insides of buses, while 10 permit them on the outside, according to a report last week from the Legislature's research arm. (The report noted that the Florida Association for Pupil Transportation was unaware of any Florida districts that currently have advertising on the inside.)
In light of budget woes, more states in recent years have been looking at similar legislation, said Faith Boninger, a research associate at the Commercialism in Education Research Unit at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
In her view, that's too bad.
Schools are one of the last (almost) advertising-free zones left for kids, she said. And while an ad on a school bus "isn't going to make or break a child," the idea of a safe haven is worth considering. So is the possibility that school bus ads will open the door for even more advertising even more directly aimed at kids, she said.
"If schools are full of advertising, then … there's not anywhere that they could look to, to be free of it," she said.
Ron Matus can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8873.