School Board agrees to further delay on district advertising

Sarasota County School Board

Agreeing with a recommendation from Superintendent Lori White, the Sarasota County School Board has decided to put off pursuing new advertising opportunities for the district until they see what other Florida school districts do.

“I have considerable concern [about] the number of districts that have gone through either [a request for proposal process] or directly working with [an advertising] firm, and no one has signed [a contract] yet,” White told the board members during their May 15 work session, adding, “It seems the school board attorneys have some caution.”

Additionally, White said, she was reluctant to see the Sarasota County School Board move forward on an RFP right now because of the staff time that would have to be devoted to the process. “I hate to invest what limited staff time we have available” on a project with obstacles, White said, noting she would “much prefer seeing contracts in place [in other districts] and how they work out” before asking staff to tackle a local project of the same nature.

Board member Frank Kovach pointed out that, for a number of years, the Education Foundation of Sarasota County had had a staff member dedicated to trying to raise funds for the district through the naming of school facilities, “but I don’t think it’s been entirely successful.” He added, “I don’t know that we have the expertise in house to [handle advertising contracts]. It almost requires you to bring in a marketing person.”

White assured the school board members she would let them know whenever another district had moved forward with an advertising contract.

Chairwoman Caroline Zucker asked that White update the board in at least six months, even if it was just to announce that nothing had transpired by that point.

The May 15 discussion was a follow-up to a presentation about school district advertising during the board’s Oct. 18 work session. At that time, the school board members asked Tanice Knopp, who leads the district’s PALS Partners in Education office, to undertake more research into how other Florida school districts were pursuing advertising options.

During the May 15 work session, Knopp provided the board members with an overview of such initiatives in the Brevard, Broward, Charlotte, Lee, Manatee, Marion, Miami-Dade, Orange, Palm Beach and Seminole school districts.

Only Orange, as she had reported in October, had an ongoing marketing and advertising program, with an employee dedicated to that work, Knopp said.

Among the others, she pointed out, Broward County had used an RFP to select a national firm to help it with advertising, but the contract still was under consideration. Manatee County had had discussions with a national firm, she said, but “the school attorney has been, for several months, looking at the language in that contract. … They don’t have a date set [for finalizing the process].”

Miami-Dade also had put out an RFP, Knopp said, with a committee having narrowed its list of respondents to firms. “They are reviewing those contracts very carefully,” she said, “and they have no prediction as far as when they might be able to move on them, if at all.”

Knopp also said she had undertaken some research on her own into national firms that help school districts with advertising, but “we don’t really have any track record with any of those firms in Florida yet.”

In response to a question, Knopp said Orange County had netted $220,00 so far this year from advertising contracts at the district level.

“It appears to me the dollars are not significant dollars,” said board member Carol Todd, who earlier had reiterated her opposition to district advertising. “I think it’s just a way of prostituting ourselves,” she said.

“When I see us cutting positions or cutting supplies [at a level of] $20,000 or $30,000 or $10,000 [out of the district budget], $220,000 is a significant amount of money,” Zucker said, “and I don’t view it as prostituting ourselves. I view it as going out and seeing what’s happening in the market and addressing [district revenue] needs.”

Since the Great Recession hit, the school board has been faced with trimming millions of dollars out of its budget each year while using its reserves to maintain as many programs and as much staff as possible.

Board member Jane Goodwin said she was not opposed to “advertising of a complementary nature on our website,” such as ads that might help people find homes or assistance with financing. That was part of what the Orange County district had done, she noted.

“A quarter of a million is a significant amount of revenue,” Goodwin added.

Another concern she had, Goodwin said, was that “we certainly don’t want to take away from any school partnerships” with local firms.

Todd agreed with Goodwin. “We are asking local businesses in our local schools to be real partners,” Todd said, not just to provide cash to the schools during fundraisers.

After White proposed the board continue to delay any decision on district advertising pursuits, Kovach said, “I’m fine with that … These districts [Knopp had researched] are the biggest of the big school districts in Florida … and they are struggling with this.”

“I don’t think it’s a dead issue [for the Sarasota district],” Zucker said, but “perhaps someone else can solve it for us.”