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Hollywood High hopes to make money for textbooks by erecting a digital sign at one of LA’s most dangerous intersections

Mike Szymanski | November 22, 2016

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An artist’s depiction of the billboard at Sunset and Highland. (Courtesy of LAUSD)

The principal at Hollywood High School has taken to heart the superintendent’s call to think creatively of ways to raise money for her school.

The LA Unified School District doesn’t provide her the Advanced Placement textbooks she needs to get her students ready for college, and she wants to install state-of-the-art equipment at the school’s New Media Academy.

So she’s asking the school board to consider capitalizing on the fact that her school sits at one of Los Angeles’s busiest intersections in the heart of Hollywood. The school is pushing for a pilot program that would allow a digital billboard to go up on Sunset Boulevard and Highland Avenue to generate several hundred thousand dollars a year through paid advertising. The pilot program would benefit not only her school but for all the local schools in the area and even the district as a whole.

“I know that our superintendent has been asking us to think out of the box and to think about different ways of bringing revenue to the school sites, and this is the honest intent of this proposal,” said Principal Alejandra Sanchez at a presentation earlier this month to the Budget, Facilities and Audit Committee. “We are in a prime area in Hollywood and we have a lack of funds to support our Advanced Placement program.”

But the intersection is also one of the city’s most dangerous, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis last year that recorded 159 collisions between 2002 and 2013, as well as 33 hit-and-run accidents, 22 pedestrian accidents, 10 bicycle accidents and two fatalities at the intersection. And that worries some school board members.

“We have had, unfortunately, numerous students and parents hit by cars since September,” said Monica Ratliff, the committee chair. “God forbid we put up billboards and a member of our community was hit because someone is looking at the billboard. That is really problematic.”

Just a few blocks north of the school at Hollywood and Highland, it is such a busy pedestrian intersection that the city last year installed a “scramble” crosswalk where people can cross diagonally. In an LA Times study published last year, 38 pedestrians were hit by cars there from 2002 to 2013. That is also the intersection with some of the  largest digital billboards in the city.

Digital billboards remain controversial in Los Angeles and were banned by the City Council, except in specific districts, because residents considered them ugly and irritating and the danger for drivers who would watch and read them rather than paying attention to the road. A recent court ruling allowed the city to restrict billboards and forbid companies from turning traditional billboards into digital, which may be more distracting to drivers.

The principal told the committee, made up of four board members and other administrators, that the school is looking for more World History books for their Advanced Placement students, and they are seeking more money for a TV studio for the school, as well as a computer lab estimated to cost more than $150,000.

Made up of four small learning academies, Hollywood High just received a grant from Artivist Entertainment and Live Nation/House of Blues Music Forward Foundation to turn their basement into a state-of-the-art recording studio for aspiring musicians, vocalists and sound engineers. But the school needs additional outside help that the district won’t be able to provide. The district foresees a budget deficit of nearly half a billion dollars in three years.


Music Forward studio at Hollywood High with Makir Hall and Justice Edwards. (LAUSD Daily)

The Sunset and Highland intersection in front of the school already has a scrolling billboard that highlights student activities and even shows where students are heading off to college. The pilot proposal would replace that billboard with one that is constructed by an outside firm but controlled by the district. All costs would go to the vendor, and they would seek advertisers, but a committee of school personnel would have final approval.

The 106-year-old school is where celebrities such as Carol Burnett, Cher, Judy Garland, Laurence Fishburne, John Ritter and Dolores del Rio attended as children, and those stars and others are painted in a mural on the side of the auditorium. The school has a list of more than 500 notable graduates, including Sarah Jessica Parker, Mickey Rooney, Mitzi Gaynor, Sharon Tate and Anthony Anderson. The school’s mascot is “The Sheik” after the Rudolph Valentino movie. Blonde bombshell Lana Turner was rumored to have been discovered across the street from the school while she was a student there.

alejandrasanchezhollywoodhighThe school of 1,5000 students is now about 80 percent socio-economically disadvantaged with 70 percent Latino and 18 percent English language learners. Because they have limited fundraising options, the principal sees this as a way of taking advantage of the traffic that zips past the school.

The principal asked if the committee would consider suspending the school’s no-advertising rules to allow for a pilot program that could benefit schools at other high-traffic locations. It could be a money-making venture for many other schools.

Representatives of a digital billboard company came to the school with the idea last year, and the school realized how much money could be generated. The idea is to avoid any start-up costs for the school district.

“It wouldn’t be just for our school, but the money would be shared with all the other elementary and middle schools in the area,” the principal said.

The exact amount they could generate isn’t clear, but Quinton Dean, LA Unified’s director of Procurement and Contract Administration, said he is helping the school with the idea of considering three possible sites on different parts of the campus.

The idea would require the school board to suspend Board Rule 1251, which prohibits advertising on school property. The superintendent could waive the rule, but Dean thought it would be important to bring it to the school board first.


Monica Ratliff is against the billboard idea.

“It’s revenue that can be generated and is an opportunity for Hollywood High to fund its arts program,” Dean said. “One important thing is that there are no up-front costs to Hollywood High or the district. The vendors would do everything, but the district would have control of the sign.”

The costs of the signs could run about $700,000 for three signs and the company would recover its cost in about two years, Dean said. “It is a prime area and we would get the best deal for the district,” Dean said.

A week after discussing at the committee, Ratliff mentioned the idea again at last Tuesday’s school board meeting, saying that the full board can expect a report as early as the December board meeting.

“I am totally against this,” Ratliff repeated. “I totally respect that the school is interested in making money, but I have a lot of issues with the idea.”

The rule to prohibit advertising on school sites was amended in 2010 to allow sponsorships of the school, but not for direct promotions. That’s why some schools have banners on their fences on well-traveled streets that have company names on them.

Dean said the vendor will pay for all the costs, including electricity, and all of the advertising will be approved by the district.

The principal said she has not yet brought the idea to parents, except for those on Hollywood’s School Site Council, which controls some of the discretionary spending funds. She said the council approved of her taking the next steps to pursue the idea.

“The parents were very excited because of the revenue to the school,” Sanchez said. “They know how limited the money is and any idea will be welcome.”

Board member George McKenna said he was interested in what could be generated for the school and what the parents think. But he also had some concerns about mischief the sign could cause.

“Some little brainiac is going to hack into it and who knows what they can do with that sign,” McKenna said.

Board member Scott Schmerelson also worried about accidents. “That artist rendering is an ugly big sign and is just awful,” Schmerelson said. “It will be the district responsibility and very, very dangerous thing to have at that intersection.”

Dean and the principal suggested the billboard could be turned off when students come and go to the school.

Ratliff asked if the billboard could be owned completely by the district and keep 100 percent of the revenue, and Chief Facilities Officer Mark Hovatter said that it would be possible. He said the revenue sharing with local schools and the district could be distributed like they do with money made from filming on school locations. At the moment, two-thirds of the money generated for filming goes to the school, while one-third goes to the district, he said.

“We can build it,” Hovatter said. “We could also get some community support and involvement if, for example, we ask the vendor to guarantee there is no graffiti in the area or require something else that would give back to the community.”

Ratliff said she wasn’t excited about getting into the advertising business with a vendor and wondered aloud what kinds of advertising could fit. “It wouldn’t be Coca-Cola, so what would it be, string cheese? It won’t be for some TV shows or some movies certainly either.”

Ratliff and Schmerelson voted down bringing the idea to the full seven-member board, while McKenna and board member Ref Rodriguez wanted to explore the idea.

“I personally think it’s a terrible idea,” Ratliff said. “And I recognize that schools feel like they are under tremendous pressure to think outside the box. Everyone can vote their conscience.”

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