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Tight school budgets could soon translate into Missouri school districts’ selling ad space on yellow school buses.

Missouri state Rep. T.J. Berry, R-Kearney, says his bill — HB 224 — isn’t a cure-all by any stretch. But legalizing ads inside and outside the buses would give school districts one additional way to raise money in these tough times.

“Every single school district has had to deal with budget concerns,” Berry said last week. “And generally speaking, the way they have had to deal with those has been cuts or tax increases.”

The school bus is something that is already out there and paid for, he said. His bill would permit districts to generate a modest stream of income from their buses.

Few question the need for finding additional funds when it comes to educating children, but at least two groups think the school bus exteriors should remain ad-free.

“There is no such thing as free money,” said Josh Golin, associate director for the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood. “There are real costs to this: the price of selling out your students to advertisers.”

Students don’t need the first and last message they receive from their schools each day to be advertisements, Golin said. Students boarding a bus are certainly a captive audience.

The National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services opposes advertising on safety grounds. Obscuring the recognizable school-bus yellow exterior with ads and distracting other drivers “present a safety problem around school buses that cannot be ignored,” the group said in its position paper.

National studies have shown that anything that diverts a driver’s attention from the road can pose a hazard, opponents say.

“And a big yellow bus doesn’t distract?” Berry asked.

Several years ago in Indiana, a Department of Education lawyer suggested that allowing advertisements on buses would invite First Amendment challenges by spurned advertisers, the group noted.

Berry said the bill would limit the types of advertising that would be allowed.

The regulations would prohibit ads that contain obscene or sexual material, or messages associated with gambling, tobacco products, alcohol, and political campaigns or causes. The ads could not promote drug use or “any illegal activity or antisocial behavior.” They can’t contain “harmful, discriminatory, false, misleading or deceptive” messages.

“There are a lot of safeguards being built in,” he said.

Berry emphasized that the space reserved for the ads would be “very limited,” meaning toward the back of the bus.

By 2012, nine states — Arizona, Colorado, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Tennessee, Texas and Utah — permitted advertising on the exterior of school buses, according to the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. Several, including Missouri, considering it last year.

The bill made it out of the Missouri House last year but did not clear the Senate, Berry said. He acknowledged that the idea was “very controversial.”

Throughout Missouri, some districts have talked about the possibility of school bus ads. One of them was the Francis Howell R-III School District.

The district had a “work team” that reviewed alternative sources of revenue, including advertising on school buses, said Kevin Supple, the chief financial officer.

“We have looked at it and collected information on what other districts have done,” he said. “Without the authority to do it. It becomes a moot point.”

Supple acknowledged that the notion of leasing ad space on buses might take some soul-searching.

“I think our biggest hurdle is to come to grips as to whether or not it is appropriate to let our schools — particularly at the elementary level — become another source for advertisers to get face time with our students,” he said.

Golin, of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, was a bit more blunt about the dilemma posed by school bus advertising: “It exploits children.”

WORK BEGINS ON LAMBERT EXITS

Lambert Airport officials have begun renovations to the entrances and exits on the baggage-claim level of Terminal 1. The work will continue through much of the year.

First, the airport will add new ceilings, lighting and wall finishes near the three exits — 14, 15 and 16 — that connect the terminal to the Yellow Level of the short-term parking garage. Lambert spokesman Jeff Lea said two of the three exits would remain open throughout the renovations. The work should wrap up by the fall.

Second, the airport will build new glass-enclosed walkway entrances connecting the baggage claim area with Arrivals Drive. The current covered walkways were damaged in the April 2011 tornado. The project should be completed by the end of summer.

The renovations are not part of the larger Airport Experience project, but the look will be consistent with those included in the $70 million makeover.