It was a tough budget season in Nutmeg, and the Board of Education was forced to make difficult cuts just to start the new year with a balanced budget.  To make matters worse, Town officials are whispering about possibly clawing back part of the appropriation to the Board if and when the General Assembly ever adopts a budget.  These are difficult and uncertain times.

Veteran Board member Bob Bombast has been concerned that the Board will need some help getting through the coming year.  After reading about how private donations saved the July 4th Celebration in Nutmeg this year, Bob had one of his infamous brainstorms: the Nutmeg Public Schools should seek private donations to supplement the meager sums appropriated for the public schools in Nutmeg.

Bob eagerly brought his ideas to the next meeting of the Nutmeg Board of Education.  When the Board got to its standing agenda item, “New Business,” Bob raised his hand to be recognized.  “Mr. Chairperson, I have some great new ideas to solve the Board’s financial problems,” Bob announced grandly.  He didn’t notice the sighs and rolling of the eyes from his colleagues, and he blithely launched into his presentation.  “Our problem is that we are not entrepreneurial and creative.  We sit here with our hands outstretched waiting for the Town to provide us funds.  We need the Town’s money, of course, but we need more.”

“Where, pray tell, are we going to get these additional funds,” fellow Board member Mal Content asked.  “We are a public agency reliant on taxpayer funds.”

“We need to go out and find the money through private donations,” Bob answered.  “In fact, I move that we spend $10,000 on a fundraising company now with the hope that we will garner $100,000, $200,000 or more later in private donations.”

Penny Pincher, Bob’s ally on the Board, promptly seconded, and without further discussion, the Board approved the hiring of a company to target companies and wealthy residents for charitable donations to help support the Nutmeg Public Schools.

Surprisingly, the fundraising was quite successful.  For example, the Nutmeg Football Friends offered $10,000 for new uniforms for the football team, and the League of Women’s Voters dug deep and promised $80,000 to fund a new Civics teaching position.  One local magnate pledged to contribute $200,000 to provide every student at his son’s elementary school with a new MacBook.  Another family offered $20,000 to restore the boys’ wrestling team, a sport that the Board had cut some years before.  For once, a bright idea from Bob has paid off.

Bob could not hide his glee when he was able to report on these and other donations offered by the public.  He was shocked, therefore, when instead of simply accepting these gifts with gratitude, the other Board members started talking about whether to accept these gifts.

“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” Bob urged.  “Just accept these gifts now before the donors get annoyed with our equivocation and change their minds!”

Should the Board think twice before accepting these gifts?

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In a word, yes.  Donations from the public can be helpful and enrich the school experience for students, and the statutes specifically authorize boards of education to accept gifts “for the educational benefit of students.”  Conn. Gen. Stat. Section 10-237(c).  However, the acceptance of gifts raises significant policy and legal issues that the Nutmeg Board of Education should think through.

One basic issue is equity.  The generosity of a rich parent in one school can create problems with other schools because of the Board’s legal obligations.  Specifically, in setting forth the duties of boards of education, Conn. Gen. Stat. Section 10-220(a) provides that school boards “shall give all the children of the school district, . . . as nearly equal advantages as may be practicable; [and] shall provide an appropriate learning environment for all 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.”  (Emphasis added).  Providing special advantages, goods or services to students in a single school because of the generosity of a wealthy benefactor is inconsistent with this obligation to allocate resources equitably.

This duty applies irrespective of the source of the funds.  Similarly, the source of funds spent is irrelevant under Title IX, which requires that school districts assure that opportunities for boys and girls are substantially proportionate.  In measuring opportunities under Title IX, the United States Department of Education and the federal courts will place great weight on comparative expenditures, irrespective of the source of the funds.  Thus, accepting private contributions to support the football team or other boys sports can raise issues of equity under Title IX.

Relying on private donations to support school activities also raises practical problems.  For example, a benefactor may offer to cover the expenses of establishing a new sports team in a given year.  As soon as that benefactor decides not to continue funding, however, the school district would face a difficult choice – eliminate the team and disappoint the participants, or reallocate resources from other areas and assume the financial obligation of supporting the team with public funds.

Similar practical problems arise if a board of education chooses to fund a teaching position through private donations.  The teacher who is hired will be a district employee irrespective of the source of the funding.  If the private donations for that purpose do not continue, the board will again either have to reallocate resources or eliminate the position.  However, if the board eliminates the position and a layoff is necessary, the board may then incur the additional cost of unemployment compensation.

In sum, when soliciting and accepting gifts and donations, boards of education must think through the legal and practical implications of such action.  As a general rule, it may be best to accept donations for one-time expenditures, rather than continuing programs.

Finally, we note that Bob sprung his idea on the Board under “New Business.”  While such an agenda item may be appropriate under Robert’s Rules, such an agenda item would violate the Freedom of Information Act, because it fails fairly to apprise the public of the business to be transacted, as required by the FOIA.