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Schools eye online ads as money source

Officials consider web links to raise money

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Posted: Thursday, July 5, 2012 2:36 pm

Could an online retailer like Amazon or eBay save a teacher’s job on the Coastside?

Board members for the Cabrillo Unified School District sure hope so. They’re considering posting advertisements from online shopping sites as a new way to provide a little extra cash for classrooms.

The idea would be akin to programs such as eScrip and gift-card promotions in which a fraction of a shopper’s purchases go toward schools.

An online retailer would offer a similar arrangement, but it would require putting a Web link right on the school district’s homepage. Anyone who clicked on the advertisement and then made a purchase online would earn a small cut for the school system.

Presenting the proposal for the first time in May, school board member Rob Pappalardo said the idea could be an untapped money stream that would help balance out state cuts.

“They want to give us a piece of this pie, and I don’t see why we wouldn’t want to do it,” he said, pointing out he was an avid online shopper. “It’s not advertising; it’s really shifting someone’s behavior to our benefit.”

Other school officials were more squeamish about the idea, particularly because it would require the district to venture into uncharted waters. Assistant Superintendent John Corry said advertisements could be a slippery slope, and it might open the gates for more intrusive proposals. He pointed out the district and the 3,500 households it serves represent a lucrative market, and it receives requests to post ads from vendors almost daily.

“We could be opening Pandora’s box to vendors we don’t want to expose students to,” he warned.

The Cabrillo district landed a windfall last month when voters approved $81 million in school bonds. However, that money can’t be used for salaries or ongoing expenses.

District policies right now completely prohibit ads on the district website. Outgoing Superintendent Rob Gaskill suggested that, if the school board wanted to change those rules, it should tread carefully. The district’s attorney should first research the legal implications of allowing advertisements, he recommended.

The Farallone View Parent Teacher Organization already features an Amazon link on its website. Liz Murphy, PTO president, said the link wasn’t a huge money magnet, generating about $500 in the 2010-2011 school year. The PTO made almost no effort to draw parents to click on the link, she said. If her group tried to promote the ad more, she believed the fundraising could generate much more.

“I think it has the potential to make us a couple thousand,” she said. “I don’t have any qualms about it — it’s essentially free money.”

Cabrillo leaders have tried to draw in money from businesses in the past, but they found little success. Following a major reconstruction project at Cunha Intermediate School in 2008, the district briefly considered selling the naming rights to buildings.

As the largest online retailer, Amazon is a somewhat odd bedfellow for helping to fund a California school. The company has never charged sales taxes on its purchases, money that would normally have gone into the state budget and eventually would have helped pay for California schools. In recent years, the company has actively lobbied state officials to retain its price advantage over brick-and-mortar stores. The company will be required to charge California sales tax starting in September.

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