The Palo Alto Board of Education's policy-review committee proposed Thursday morning that the superintendent seek the board's direction for any gift to the district in excess of $1 million.
The policy proposal comes at a time when a much larger donation -- potentially $17 million -- is currently on the table from an anonymous donor to improve the facilities at Addison Elementary School. The district has been in talks with the donor for almost a year, though the project just came to the board for a full discussion on Feb. 22. The donor has already contributed $25,000 for planning and an additional $1.3 million to cover pre-construction costs but intends to fully fund the project, which staff estimates could cost $16.96 million.
Planned improvements include a new two-story building that would house the administration on the first floor and a redesigned library on the second; move the current administration building to the front of campus; a new multi-purpose room that will be able to fit the entire school population; more flexible rooms on campus; and replacing eight portables with permanent classrooms to open up more outdoor play and learning space for students.
Superintendent Max McGee and staff recently proposed a new administrative regulation with a provision that gifts in excess of $50,000 require board approval. Under this proposal, school principals could approve and accept gifts up to $25,000 and the superintendent or a district designee could approve and accept gifts of up to $50,000.
Board member Ken Dauber, the committee chair, said Thursday that gifts as large as the Addison donation require timely board involvement and feedback in the interest of making sure all schools offer comparable facilities and educational opportunities.
"The issue here is how to create a policy that makes it clear that the superintendent should seek guidance from the board before negotiating a large gift," Dauber said. "I think the goal here is to enable the board to express its opinion about the shape of the gift before it's set in stone."
McGee said the district has in place a similar process for large budget requests: Those in excess of $1 million are brought before the board as full agenda items that the board must vote on, rather than as "consent" items that are approved routinely and without discussion.
Dauber proposed adding new language to the proposed gifts, grants and bequests policy to make clear that the superintendent "shall seek direction from the board prior to negotiating gifts anticipating to amount more than $1 million."
Board member Terry Godfrey and McGee supported this addition.
Godfrey also said that it's important to consider how a policy could potentially help with a relationship with a donor: "You don't want to ruin the relationship with a donor by having these early conversations (without the board) and then you've started something you can't finish when you come to the board and we say, 'No, we don't want to do that.'"
She urged a policy that strikes a balance between involving the board and adhering to policies and practices but one that doesn't "alienate" donors.
Under the proposed policy, the district must also evaluate the purpose for which the gift is given, which "must be consistent with the stated purpose, goals, objectives, and educational philosophy of the district"; the nature of the gift, the identity of the donor and the kind of program that the gift is intended to support.
Under current board policy on gifts, the board, superintendent or designee must consider whether a particular donation has a purpose consistent with the district's vision and philosophy; begins a program that the board would be unable to continue when the donated funds are exhausted; entails undesirable or excessive costs; or implies endorsement of any business or product.
Annual donations from Parent Teacher Associations (PTAs) for the general operation of the schools are excluded from the proposed approval-and-acceptance process. Gifts in excess of $25,000 that are one-time expenditures for a one-time project must be approved by the superintendent or designee, under the proposed policy. Gifts in excess of $50,000 that are one-time expenditures for a one-time project must be approved by the board. The same stipulations would apply to annual donations from established booster clubs that were formed to raise funds for the general operation of a specific program, such as athletics or music.
The proposed gifts policy will come before the full board at its next meeting on Tuesday, March 8. The board is also set to vote on the Addison donation and project at that meeting.