The San Diego Unified school board decided tonight not to use ads to reap more revenue for schools.

While parents in San Diego repeatedly raised the idea of using ads to raise money as budget cuts threatened schools last year, the side that recoiled at the thought of commercializing campuses won out.

“Public schools, like public parks, are part of the shrinking commercial-free space in public life,” said Elena McCollim, the mother of a kindergartener in San Diego Unified schools. She added, “I sympathize with the need for money for schools. But I question what message we’re sending to our children.”

San Diego Unified staffers had proposed starting up the advertising program early next year. It was slated to begin with ads on the school district website, which staff estimated could reap more than $100,000 annually. School site ads were slated to bring in $10,000 or more for each school. Under the plan, ads could also crop up on publications such as newsletters or yearbooks.

Advocates for the ads said the school district could carefully choose which ads were allowed and which weren’t. Under the proposed policy, the superintendent would have been able to reject ads that include tobacco, alcohol or illegal drugs, support or oppose political candidates, contain vulgar language or imagery or detract “from the educational atmosphere,” among other reasons.

“We the district have complete control,” said Bernie Rhinerson, who oversees district relations for San Diego Unified and worked to draft the proposed advertising policy. Rhinerson cited a survey of school principals and vice principals in which 75 percent said that with limits, school ads should be allowed.

Ads would have only been permitted at middle and high schools, not elementary schools, and principals would have had the right to choose ad locations on campus or refuse any ad that was either inconsistent with the rules or “which offends the morals and/or conscience of the school or site community.”

While schools are clamoring for money — San Diego Unified now estimates that its deficit for next school year will range between roughly $141 million and $160 million out of a roughly $1.1 billion operating budget — school board members were uneasy about the idea of letting ads into schools, even with strict limits on which ads were allowed.

“We need to teach them critical thinking, not jam thoughts down their heads,” said school board member John de Beck, who voted against the plan. “I don’t want to be a part of using kids to sell stuff.”

School board President Richard Barrera was the only board member to vote to keep exploring the plan. And he was hardly a strong supporter of the idea: Barrera said he would only be interested in allowing ads into schools if the school district could vet companies’ records on child labor and whether they had lobbied to help or hurt school funding. Board member Katherine Nakamura later said she believed ads would have been worthwhile, but voted against the plan because it was bound to fail anyway.

“It may not be a lot of money, but for the schools, every little bit helps,” Nakamura said after the school board meeting. Besides, she added, “Our kids are exposed to an awful lot of advertising already.”

Other school systems have turned to ads as budgets are crunched: In South County, Sweetwater Union High School District has already approved an advertising program and the San Diego County Office of Education has sought corporate sponsorships to save outdoor education programs. And the trend extends far beyond San Diego County: USA Today wrote earlier this year about the growing numbers of school districts seeking advertisers for their websites.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter:

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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