Originally appeared in the CAS Weekly NewsBlast. Written by Attorney Thomas B. Mooney.

Dear Legal Mailbag:

legal_mailbag_transparentI am blessed, I think, because a wealthy new family just enrolled two children in my school, and the father has taken a great interest in our facilities. He can come on a bit strong with his suggestions and requests, but his generosity knows no bounds. He laughed when he saw that the tired old computers in our library were running on Windows XP, and he promptly ordered us twenty shiny new computers at his expense. After watching his daughter play on our outdated playground equipment, he made a big donation, and we were able to substantially update our playground, including the latest in outdoor padding. This parent benefactor even favored me by insisting on replacing my sad old desk and chair, again at his cost.

These gifts were all great, so I thought. However, my superintendent stopped by, and with what appeared to be an acute case of desk envy, he asked me how I managed to get such a nice desk. I started telling the superintendent about the good fortune smiling on my school, but he cut me off with a pointed question as to why I did not comply with Board policy. I am embarrassed to say that I had to ask him what he meant, and he was only too glad to explain that any gift over $5,000 must go to the board of education for approval.

It seems that the board is looking a gift horse in the mouth with this policy. Are such policies common, and are they required?

Grateful But Chastened

Dear Grateful:

Such policies are indeed common, and frankly I am surprised that a smart guy like you didn’t know better. Accepting gifts raises both practical and legal issues that are appropriately addressed through a policy that provides oversight and consistency.

On a practical level, accepting gifts can have cost implications. Will the school have to get new software, for example, to run on its fancy new computers? Will the outdoor padding require costly replacement more frequently than the gravel that preceded it? When a school official accepts a gift, he or she may be committing the district to future expenditures. Accordingly, many boards of education have policies and procedures to deal with proposals to make gifts and their acceptance.

There is a legal issue here as well. As you may know from the ongoing Sheff v. O’Neill case, under the Connecticut Constitution the State is obligated to assure that all students in Connecticut have a substantially equal educational opportunity, and that duty has now been codified in Conn. Gen. Stat. Section 10-4a, which includes among the educational interests of the State the concern that “each child shall have for the period prescribed in the general statutes equal opportunity to receive a suitable program of educational experiences.”

“Educational experiences” involve resources, and the concern that students have equal opportunity applies within a school district as well. The General Assembly amended Conn. Gen. Stat. Section 10-220(a) in 1997 in response to Sheff v. O’Neill, and it now specifies that the duties of boards of education in Connecticut include the duty to “provide an appropriate learning environment for its students which includes (1) adequate instructional books, supplies, materials, equipment, staffing, facilities and technology, (2) equitable allocation of resources among its schools, (3) proper maintenance of facilities, and (4) a safe school setting . . . .” Given these requirements, boards of education must assure that resources are allocated equitably among its schools, whether the resources are funded by the taxpayers or by a generous benefactor. Perhaps you can prevail upon your friend to broaden his outlook and bestow his favor on the larger student population in your town.

Please submit your questions to: legalmailbag@casciac.org.