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Commercial digital billboard proposed for Hollywood High

Commercial digital billboard proposed for Hollywood High
Albuquerque Public Schools make $225,000 a year from eight commercial billboards, including this one. L.A. Unified is discussing allowing them as well. (Albuquerque Public Schools)

The world of commerce would pry open the schoolhouse door a little wider under a proposal to put a commercial digital billboard on the campus of Hollywood High School.

The location is no coincidence.

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The campus sits at one of the city's busier and often gridlocked intersections. One mock-up of a proposed billboard shows two faces, one aligned with Sunset Boulevard and the other with Highland Avenue. There's space for a third side, toward the school, but that would not be filled, a concession to the idea that commercial messages would not be pointed at, or targeted to, students.

The concept is expected to go before the full school board in December. If approved, the billboard could be the first of many across the nation's second-largest school system.

"We're going to get the best deal for the district," deputy chief procurement officer Quinton Dean told a board committee this month. "That is a prime area."

He said the Hollywood High campus might have two additional well-suited billboard locations.

Albuquerque Public School officials have had some success with billboards, but others are wary or downright opposed.

L.A. school board president Steve Zimmer said forays into advertising have yielded minimal gain at the district level, a conclusion backed by some researchers who've looked at other school systems.

Advertisers have long sought access to schools. Channel One, a broadcast network targeting children in schools, broke ground in 1990 with its offer of TVs and other equipment as well as news and educational programming to schools in exchange for advertising. Its current owners, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, say the channel reaches 6 million students nationally.

Soda vending machines for high school students provided a different form of messaging, until L.A. Unified banned them for health reasons.

Local education officials relaxed barriers against some forms of advertising in 2010, in the midst of a major economic recession. The district allowed ads on its fleet trucks (not school buses) and sponsorship of events. In some cases, the target was employees: California Credit Union is a regular sponsor of an annual address to administrators.

At the school level, campuses have allowed sponsors to put their names on small signs along a fence, for example.

McDonald's has invited teachers to flip burgers at their outlets as part of school fundraisers, with the school getting a share of food sales. Because the events are off campus, school district officials do not necessarily weigh in, but the L.A. teachers union is part of a national campaign to end such fast-food fundraisers.

The group leading that campaign also objects to the proposed billboard.

"We also think it's inappropriate to target vulnerable children with advertising — in a setting where they cannot 'change the channel,' and where the products and services advertised will appear to have the seal of approval of the school or faculty," said David Monahan, manager of the nonprofit Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, based in Boston.

L.A. Unified also has periodically explored ways to make money from real estate with a prime location. In the late 1980s, the district battled Donald Trump over the Ambassador Hotel site on Wilshire Boulevard, hoping to build a 30-story commercial tower as well as a school. The school project eventually moved forward, but not the skyscraper. 

One district that made the leap into digital billboard advertising is Albuquerque, the largest district in New Mexico. The school system gets to use one 8-second message in every 64-second cycle.

"Right now we have one that says: Happy Thanksgiving." said Johanna King, school district director of communications. Other signs have reminded parents to sign up for free- and reduced-priced lunches or spread the word about school closures.

Advertisers have include fitness centers, universities and restaurants, including fast-food outlets. No ads for alcohol, tobacco or adult-themed entertainment are permitted.

"What a great tool we have to get the word to the community and parents of things going on in the schools," King said.

The district has eight signs at seven locations, which bring in about $225,000 a year total through a fixed lease. The money makes up nearly 30% of the annual budget of the district-affiliated Albuquerque Public Schools Education Foundation, which makes grants to local schools, said Phill Casaus, the foundation's executive director.

The host school gets a portion of the revenue directly.

L.A. Unified would do something similar, much as it does with film shoots, which brought in about $3 million last year. The host school gets 75% and the remainder goes into a pool for all schools.

A vendor approached Hollywood High with the idea for a billboard, although all comers would be invited to make an offer.

"This would definitely benefit...the instructional program," said Hollywood High Principal Alejandra M. Sanchez, speaking to the district's business and audit committee. "I know that our superintendent has asked us principals to think outside the box to think about different ways of bringing revenue to the school sites and that is the intent."

Anti-billboard activist Dennis Hathaway said that a digital billboard at a major intersection could be worth $1 million a year to the vendor. He's worried that the school district could go around efforts to limit billboard proliferation at L.A. City Hall.

Two of the four school board members at the meeting, Ref Rodriguez and George McKenna, were willing to give the idea further consideration, although McKenna worried that "frisky" students could hack the billboard and project inappropriate messages.

Board member Scott Schmerelson was concerned about aesthetics and even more so about safety.

"That artist's rendition is the ugliest, biggest sign I've ever seen, so I hope it's never going to look like that," he said. "There are so many traffic accidents and kids crossing crosswalks and getting run over...That's going to be a very big distraction for drivers."

Monica Ratliff, too, had safety concerns, but also worried about appropriate messages.

"What's going to be left for them to advertise? No Coca-Cola. It's going to be like string cheese," Ratliff said. "No soda, not some movie."

Twitter: @howardblume

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