2016-06-03 / Front Page

New school advertising policy is questioned

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — A South Portland city councilor and several residents are questioning a school department plan to raise upward of $30,000 from the sale of display ads, saying it violates a city ordinance banning billboards.

In a 4-3 vote at a Feb. 8 meeting, the South Portland Board of Education approved a plan to augment the school’s athletic budget by selling signs, to be placed around the perimeter of George E. Martin Memorial Field, as well as on the scoreboard and atop the bleachers. Corporate logos also may ring the inner walls and scoreboard of Beal Gymnasium.

With the school’s $705,287 athletic budget short some $70,000, Superintendent Ken Kunin and Athletic Director Todd Livingston said the advertising was needed to take heat off of booster groups, which have historically made up the difference through fundraising efforts. The extra money is needed, they said, to pay a number of coaching stipends, as well as half of all team uniforms, not paid for in the regular budget, due to be approved by voters June 14.

Some school board members, including Rick Carter, objected to the idea, saying the sale of advertising on school grounds was akin to “selling our souls.” However, the majority backed Kunin, with chairman Richard Matthews declaring himself in “enthusiastic support” of the idea.

When the bottom-line school budget went before the city council May 16, Mussey Street resident Greg Lewis raised an objection.

“I think this is a very ill-conceived plan when the school has a few million in reserves collected from tax money just last year,” he said. “Putting up advertising and junk all over our public schools, which belong to all of us – I don’t see any reason why that should happen.”

“I trust that the school board will be very judicious in how they do the advertising, but it’s not in the purview of the city council to tell them how they raise their money,” said Councilor Linda Cohen.

“This council does not want to walk on your turf and tell you how to run your schools,” Councilor Claude Morgan told school board members in the audience. “Come to the council when you need funds, not advice.”

However, Councilor Eben Rose pointed to the city’s sign regulations, codified in Chapter 27, Sections 1562 and 1563 of the city’s zoning ordinances.

Rose attempted to quote those passages, but was shut down by Mayor Tom Blake.

“That is not what is before us this evening,” Blake said. “The policy that the school department has established is not what is on the table this evening. We are talking about budget items. If we are questioning a policy decision the school board has made, then let’s do that in the proper format.”

Blake said City Manager Jim Gailey would research the issue.

“The language seems pretty clear to me,” Rose wrote in a May 20 email to the Sentry. “It says definitively that ‘no sign shall be erected unless specifically permitted by the terms of this Article,’ and there is nothing in that article that exempts school property or empowers the superintendent any more than a private property owner to bypass the regs, including seeking council approval for a temporary sign.”

“I was not arguing for or against such advertising. In fact, I was the only councilor who did not state my policy position in this regard,” Rose wrote. “I was simply pointing out that Kunin presented a budget with $30,000 shortfall that he intended to fund through a mechanism that potentially violates city code – something no one seemed to catch until now. Armed with this information, this might have allowed me or other councilors to consider an amendment that would fund this shortfall and circumvent this awkward noncompliance with code.”

Of the city council members, only Brad Fox supported Rose’s attempt to question the school raising revenue through the sale of commercial advertising.

“I’m completely opposed to the creeping commercialism in our schools,” he said. “I think it’s completely inappropriate.”

However, both Morgan and Councilor Maxine Beecher faulted Rose for not raising the issue during earlier budget workshops with the school board. He should have suggested adding to the regular school budget then, they said, not at the final vote to approve the budget and send it to a June 14 referendum. Beecher also raised the spectre of “pay-to-play,” a possible alternative to any shortfall in the school department’s athletic budget.

“I’d rather have a silly little sign somewhere in the football stadium than I would to have kids excluded because their parents can’t afford to pay for the individual,” she said.

Asked Tuesday about Rose’s objection, Kunin said he is proceeding as planned, based on preliminary word from city officials that he’s in the clear, although he is still waiting on an official interpretation of the ordinance.

“We asked the city manager and the (code enforcement officer) to look into it, and at this point I’ve not been told that it does violate any existing ordinance,” he said. “And so I’m waiting to see if there’s any further information.

“Our understanding is that the school board is able to make decisions for school property and that’s not precluded for the types of signs that we’re talking about,” Kunin said. “But, of course, we would defer to the city if there is an issue that requires our attention.”

City planner Tex Haeuser was not available for comment Tuesday and Code Enforcement Officer Pat Doucette did not return a request for comment left on her voice mail.

In response to messages left with his assistant, asking if school department plans to sell display advertising does in fact violate the billboard ban, Gailey emailed a one-line reply that could indicate Kunin may not want to hold his breath waiting on an official ruling.

“No idea – you will need to talk to the school department,” Gaily wrote.

Gailey did not mention the research Blake had promised he would do, or when it might be delivered to the council.

Kunin said any signs sold would be mostly 4-feet by 4-feet, or possibly as large as 4-feet by 6-feet.

“We’re not talking billboard-sized like what the ordinance was made for,” he said. “What you would see would be similar to what you see on athletic fields and Little League fields around the state.”

In addition to requiring a city council permit, the sign regulation also limits issuance of permits for portable signs to no more than three in any 12-month period, “for any particular property, business or location,” with a minimum 14-day waiting period between permits.

Kunin notes that the $30,000 figure also includes individual sponsorships sold in return for Red Riot window decals, T-shirts and event tickets. He was unable to say exactly what percentage of the $30,000 was to be raised from sign sales.

Meanwhile, Rose said he still hopes to amend the school budget to add in the revenue expected to be generated by the sale of signs at the high school athletic sites. In the long term, he said the ordinance must be amended to account for what the school board wants to do.

“If we don't like the law and want to carve out an exception, there is a process by which changes should be made,” he said. “We cannot and should not just wish it away or ignore it. That process is to bring the topic to the table formally in a public meeting and possibly to amend the ordinance. That process is designed specifically to take in public input.

“Maybe the public wants this sort of signage and is willing to have their representatives accept an amendment that allows this exception to be made. Maybe they don't. But as it stands the law is the law, and what the council did was amend the signage ordinance de facto to allow an exception for the school property and the superintendent under the aegis of a budget hearing,” Rose said.

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