Ads appear on Prince George’s County school system Web site

Visitors to the Prince George’s County school system’s Web site can learn about charter school applications, how to prevent and report bullying, and the implementation of new academic standards. But they also are likely to find advertisements for furniture stores and clothing stores, online university programs and insurance companies.

The ads — on the public school system’s main Web site — are placed by a Google AdSense program and are accompanied by a disclaimer that “Prince George’s County Public Schools does not endorse any messages, products or services presented in the ads below.”

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The county started running the ads two years ago and has received about $160,000 for them. The county uses the money for scholarships that are distributed by the district’s Excellence in Education Foundation, said Thomas E. Sheeran, acting chief financial officer for the schools.

“It makes college more affordable to our students and that’s a pretty strong benefit,” Sheeran said.

Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said cash-strapped school systems across the country have turned to Web site advertising as a fundraising tool.

“It’s part of the times,” said Domenech, who was the Fairfax County school superintendent from 1997 to 2004. “It’s the new normal.”

He said the ads are akin to paid promotions that appear on school buses, scoreboards and even schools themselves.

Domenech said Fairfax considered Web site advertising when he was superintendent but decided against it because of concerns about who would advertise, what the ads would say, and how to monitor them.

Sheeran said the Prince George’s school system decides which types of businesses can advertise on the site, giving officials a level of control. He said the ads, which run at the bottom of the Web site, are not obtrusive and have been a “win-win” for the school system and its students. Visitors to the Web site this past month — leading up to the holiday shopping and travel season — found ads for eBay, L.L. Bean and the Kayak online travel service.

Prince George’s started running at the ads to help offset a drop in revenue, school officials said. Programs were being slashed, they said, and positions were being eliminated.

In 2008, Prince William County, in Virginia, started placing small ads on individual school Web sites.

Banks, auto dealers and other businesses purchase space, and when visitors click on a company’s logo, the are taken to its Web site.

Before being directed away from the school’s Web site, a pop-up message appears that reads: “Warning! This Web page may contain links to one or more Web sites outside the PWCS network, which are not PWCS venues and may not reflect the views or opinions of PWCS. PWCS does not control the content of such Web sites and does not sponsor or endorse any messages, products, or services contained on such Web sites.”

Sometimes, unused ad space will be employed to promote the opportunity to advertise on school Web sites. Freedom High School’s Web site has a small box that says, “Your business logo here will help sponsor this school,” and provides contact information for the Web site administrator.

During the 2011-12 school year, the Prince William school system raised $75,000 from the sale of online advertising space to support a program called SchoolFusion, which allows teachers, students and parents to share information online.

Domenech said that school districts across the country continue to struggle financially and that he expects Web site advertising will continue to be an option for them.

“It is a growing trend, and probably will continue to be, as districts look for all the ways they can to get revenue,” Domenech said.

 
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