Company was paid $255,000 to hang posters

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A Jackson, Miss., newspaper’s investigation has revealed a hard-to-justify expenditure for hanging posters in some Mississippi public schools.

In 2018, lawmakers paid $255,000 to Memphis-based SkoolAds to place framed anti-smoking posters in roughly 10 percent of the state’s public schools. The 1,000 posters cost the state about $3 each, or $3,000 to print. At the rate SkoolAds got paid, each poster cost Mississippi taxpayers $255 to hang, reports The Clarion Ledger.

The investigation found that former state Senator Terry Burton, R-Newton, pushed for an earmark funneling $1.8 million from the Department of Education to SkoolAds. The Mississippi Legislature ordered agencies to use the company, the paper says, allowing the company to sidestep competition and avoid oversight.

SkoolAds paid lobbyist Beth Clay more than $362,000 since 2011, or an average of a little more than $45,000 annually for the past eight years.

“Ironically, Sen. Burton was a smoker, and he was one of our biggest advocates about this,” Hope Ladner, who works at Clay’s lobbying firm, told the Clarion Ledger. “…he truly believed that targeting youth was the best way to spend tobacco cessation, tobacco prevention money.”

Between 2013 and 2014, SkoolAds donated $1,000 to Burton and $2,000 to Mississippi House Education Chairman John Moore, R-Brandon. The earmark initially required a transfer of money from the Department of Education.

Burton resigned from his leadership post at the beginning of this year’s legislative session after his third DUI arrest, The Clarion Ledger reported. Moore resigned from the House in December 2017 after facing sexual harassment complaints from multiple women. He did not respond to multiple attempts to reach him for comments, including calls, texts and a letter.

The state Department of Transportation successfully advocated to remove the SkoolAds allocation from the state’s 2019 budget after the company refused to consider alternatives to posters for a campaign warning of the dangers of distracted driving.

“We came up with various ideas,” MDOT spokesman Chris Turner told the paper. “They were nixed. We were told, ‘No. No. No. This is all we do.’”

Ultimately, MDOT came to the conclusion that the SkoolAds program had no value and was unnecessary.

To read the complete story and find links to previous stories in the investigative series, go to The Clarion Ledger website.