by Pete Mazzaccaro

A bill passed recently by City Council, 15 to 0, will allow numerous public buildings in the city to be anchors for billboards. Among these public buildings, as detailed in Sue Ann Rybak’s front page story this week, is the Chestnut Hill branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia.

This latest in a series of desperate moves is aimed directly at trying to raise funds for the Philadelphia School District, a district for which a multimillion-dollar budget gap is an annual event.

The bill’s sponsor, Council President Darrell L. Clarke, said that he was not yet sure how much money the advertising program would bring in until the city picks from among a dozen or so proposals by vendors who would set up the advertising system, but was sure it would be “tens of millions of dollars.”

The bad news for Philadelphians is that they should get ready to see a lot more ads. No public structure appears to be safe. In addition to libraries, ads can appear in parks, on office buildings, trash trucks and recreation centers. In addition to the library, I’d bet we see ads at the Water Tower, in the Wissahickon and maybe on every train station in the neighborhood.

And, while local civic groups and friends of public spaces express their dissatisfaction with the bill, their best bet seems to be not in fighting the coming advertisements but in working on how to regulate them.

The problem is that no one really has a better idea for how to fund public schools in Philadelphia. In fact, school spending is so controversial in this city, you’ll find some who believe the schools are so bad they shouldn’t be funded at all.

As the district deals with an ever tightening grip on federal and state funding, Darrell Clark’s scheme for peddling billboard ads on public property might be distasteful, but it proposes a practical and achievable solution to what otherwise has been a relatively hopeless enterprise.

In some ways, it’s hard to imagine that this isn’t the very foreseeable outcome of public policies that favor lower taxes over increased public spending. As the old model begins to sink under its own weight, a new model – distinctly capitalist in its market approach to the problem (at least on the question of funding) – takes its place.

If you can’t get the pubic to pay for it, sell ads!

I think it’s regrettable that many of our public places will be festooned with ever more ads, but I don’t think such billboards are our first step to cultural apocalypse. I would like to see our libraries spared, but I can take it in stride.

My problem isn’t with the plan as much as it is with my feeling that this scheme – like public gambling – won’t live up to its promise. This time next year or the year after, we’ll still have struggling, underfunded schools, but this time, we’ll be able to put kids on school buses pitching Oscar Meyer cold cuts or Bic pens.

The problem is that funding isn’t the only problem. Ads might produce more money in the end, but it won’t fix our schools.