Last year, two businesses in town approached School District 2 with an offer.
They were willing to pay $30,000 for a new electronic sign and message board at Senior High if they could place their companies' logos on the sign.
The school board, amenable to the offer, still chose to hold off. It was certainly attractive, but was it fair to the other district schools that had no offer?
Also, trustees quickly realized that they had no good policy to direct the district on how to handle outside advertising at SD2 schools.
Continually under the threat of budget cuts, trustees weren't eager to turn away offered money. And so they put together a committee to craft an advertising policy and blaze a trail forward for the district.
"Our responsibility is to maximize all sources of revenue," said Leo Hudetz, chief financial officer for SD2.
And while it may not be much, "it's all going to help out," he said.
Now, a year after the board first tackled the issue, the district has a new policy dictating how advertisements may appear on district property and giving direction to schools that want to do it.
"All company logos appearing on district property, including logos on non-cash donations provided by sponsors, shall be for identification purposes only," the policy states.
In other words, Wendy's can have its name on the sports field but can't advertise its meals or deals for its food.
A second provision says "public signs indicating the district's appreciation of an enterprise's support for education shall be permitted if approved by the superintendent or designee."
Jane Healy, an educational psychologist and author from Vail, Colo., tells school districts to exercise extreme caution on advertising policies.
"Everything that happens to a child's brain can have a profound impact," she said.
When students see school-sanctioned advertising, especially in close quarters like hallways and in classrooms, they're aware that those ads are approved by the school district, she said.
It sends the message that students are "valued only as a consumer or potential consumer," she said.
The district is aware of the potential impact advertising can have on students and on the community, and for that reason it has narrowly crafted its policy, Superintendent Terry Bouck said. Thoughtful and reasonable are the watchwords, he said.
Requests, like the one for the reader board at Senior High, are still on hold. Trustees are looking at contracting with a company that can investigate and then set the going rates for outdoor advertising and work with the companies interested in buying in.
For that to happen, the district had to take inventory and see where ads and company logos were already up and who was still paying for them.
The big ones — like Wendy's Field at Daylis Stadium at Senior, and Yellowstone Bank Field at West High — were lifetime contracts. The smaller ones, the district realized, had either been put in place with a verbal agreement or the contract was lost. Either way, the companies were no longer paying fees for having their names on the signs anymore.
The hope is that these companies will be roped back in once a contractor is hired to sell advertising for the district. Until then, the signs with company logos will stay in place.
"To ask them to take it down in the meantime didn't seem appropriate," said Mark Wahl, activities director for the district. "On the other hand, it is important that we get our policy right."
District officials don't anticipate bringing in major dollars from advertising. Estimates place it somewhere in the thousands of dollars while the district each year finds itself with deficits in the millions of dollars.
"In the scheme of things, it does not provide us a major flotation device," Bouck said.
But, he added, "the additional dollars, well, we certainly appreciate the dollars we get."
Bouck said more money would be saved as the district finds ways to cut back. His challenge to building administrators and department heads is to find places where they can cut.
"Everything we save is important," he said.
The district also pulls in small amounts of cash from renting out facilities and field space to for-profit and nonprofit organizations — roughly $35,000 a year.
Money from vending machines in an individual school pays for that school's clubs and after-school activities.
The district will try for an energy grant this year that could bring in $22,000, and it will apply for Medicaid funding set aside to help ease transportation costs for special education students.
"We're looking under every rock," Bouck said.
The district's best hope for finding any kind of meaningful budgetary help is the state legislature. Trustees and district leaders are actively lobbying state lawmakers to make changes to one part of Montana's school funding formula known as the basic entitlement.
The state’s current model leaves urban school districts and growing school districts underfunded, said board Chairwoman Teresa Stroebe.
The basic entitlement is a flat sum — roughly $90,000 for an elementary school district and $262,000 for a high school district — paid out to every school district in the state.
Each district, regardless of its size, receives the same amount from the state. SD2, with its 16,000 students, gets the same check as Belfry with its 12 students.
That has to change, SD2 leaders say. But until it does, the district will continue to look at the various ways it has to save money through efficiency and cuts, and earn money through advertising and services.
"We need to get past the financial dilemma," Bouck said.