By Rachel Christian
Osceola County School District is now in the business of digitally marketing to teachers and parents by selling email blasts and other ads to private companies as a new revenue stream.
Access to students is also available via an online portal known as Virtual Backpack.
According to District Public Information Officer Dana Schafer, School Board members approved the marketing strategies last year as part of the district’s strategic plan. The board also created a position to oversee these new initiatives and hired Matthew Tuchman for the job in December.
Tuchman sent out an email Tuesday to existing clients and potential advertisers about some of the new marketing options now offered by the school district.
In addition to banners on the football field and spots in school calendars, businesses can pay for weekly email blasts and newsletter “emailed to entire parent, school district employee, and mobile app subscriber databases.”
“It (the advertiser’s message) comes from us internally and we distribute it and email it internally,” Tuchman said Wednesday about the email blasts. “That way it is perceived less as solicitation and more as an added value for being a district employee.”
Ruth Nelson, a special education teacher at St. Cloud High School, said she had no idea the district intends to use her email to market products and services for profit.
“To me, it’s kind of contradictory because we are told not to use our school email for anything but school business,” said Nelson, who has worked for the district for 21 years. “And here they are selling it – for what? For solicitation of what?”
Nelson said she already spends enough time sorting through actual emails from parents and administrators, and doesn’t relish the idea of repeatedly deciphering what’s official school business and what’s an advertisement.
“As more employees learn of this, they’re not going to be happy,” she said.
There are no federally mandated guidelines for advertising in schools, so each district is responsible for developing its own plan for evaluating potential ad revenue sources and the impact of ad messages.
Firearms, tobacco, pornography, alcohol and similar products are barred from ever advertising on any of the district’s platforms. Other than a handful of exceptions, Tuchman said the district evaluates each potential advertiser on a case-by-case basis.
Schafer and Tuchman said this kind of marketing isn’t new or unique to Osceola County.
“In fact, we’re late to the game when it comes to things like this,” Schafer said. “Other districts like Orange and Brevard do similar things and have had positions like Matt (Tuchman)’s in place for years.”
Schafer noted that Tuchman’s salary is not funded by the district – it comes directly from ad revenues he sells. He can make less than his contract salary, but not more. He also can’t make commission off marketing sales, Schafer said.
Tuchman’s salary and how much he has generated for the district were unavailable at time of publication.
Both Tuchman and Schafer say that revenue goes directly into a specific, restricted fund that helps pay for student travel expenses to competitions and events.
“When the entire jazz ensemble from Osceola Arts and 10 chaperons traveled to New York City last school year, they were able to use money from that fund to make that trip possible,” Schafer said.
Advertisements now sold by the district can also go directly to students, as Tuchman’s email shows. Businesses can buy into the Virtual Backpack, a digital platform to communicate with more than 72,000 students.
Virtual Backpack is marketed as a green alternative to flyers and paper ads formerly sent home with students, saving district resources.
More than 350 businesses are partners of the district, according to the email.