Last March, Addison Elementary School Principal Amanda Boyce, in her position for less than a year and new to the school district, received a call that principals only dream of.
A person representing an anonymous donor wished to discuss giving millions of dollars to improve Addison's facilities.
The smallest, oldest and most densely populated campus of all Palo Alto elementary schools, Addison could certainly use it. Like many other elementary schools, it got largely bypassed by the $400 million Strong Schools bond measure approved by voters in 2008 that funded substantial upgrades at the high schools, middle schools and at Duveneck, Fairmeadow and Ohlone elementary schools.
Worried about the likely need to re-open an elementary school, in 2011 the school board set aside $60 million of elementary school funding from the bond proceeds and reserved it for a new school, pending a board decision -- action that always seemed just around the corner, as it does now.
The bond measure was criticized at the time for its lack of detail about how the funds would be spent and the sense of false promise that could therefore arise. There was no allocation of funds by individual elementary school, only a laundry list of possible projects that might be funded. Ultimately, the Ohlone, Fairmeadow and Duveneck expansions, all two-story classroom additions to accommodate enrollment growth and reduce the use of portables, sucked up most of the money targeted for elementary schools.
So with a prospective donor at hand, Addison principal Boyce, with support from district administrators, her site council and staff, immediately went to work on developing a plan for how Addison could be improved. By May, the donor had provided $25,000 to fund an architect to work with the Addison community. Students, parents and staff were surveyed and a plan emerged that was estimated to cost $17 million. It would reconfigure the campus, replace portables with new two-story classrooms, move the office, build a new library and multi-purpose room and expand the playground.
Incredibly, these efforts all took place without the knowledge of the school board or the public because Superintendent Max McGee chose not to inform the board or put the matter on a school board agenda for public comment. Only when word leaked out did McGee disclose the potential project in a weekly memo to the board in early December, and he didn't provide details until the board meeting on Feb. 23, when he asked for approval of the conceptual plan, a $17 million scope of work, approval of an initial $1.3 million donation to fund the development of detailed plans and approval of no-bid contracts with architectural and project management firms.
The eleventh hour sun-shining of the proposal amounted to a fait accompli and gave little opportunity for the board or community to reflect on and consider the policy implications of two unprecedented problems: the anonymity of the donor and the inequitable investment a donation of this size obviously creates within a public school system.
The district lacks any policy on anonymous gifts or on major donations offered to an individual school, and these sensitive issues should have been immediately brought to the school board for discussion the moment the Addison donor emerged, not after countless hours of work had already been invested in developing a plan for how the money would be spent.
In our opinion, anonymous gifts to a public agency over a certain amount should be prohibited by law. Otherwise, the public has no way of knowing what promises or special treatment may accrue to the donor or his children. When John Arrillaga funded the Burgess Gym in Menlo Park he wanted to be anonymous and the City of Menlo Park told him that wasn't possible. And to their credit, when the Peery family decided to donate $24 million toward the construction of the new gyms at Paly, it recognized the donation could and should not be anonymous even though they preferred it to be so.
But more troublesome than the anonymity is the inequity of one public elementary school hitting the jackpot while others have no resources to improve their campuses. This was the problem that led to the initial adoption of district policies on fundraising, which prohibit individual schools from raising money to pay for additional staffing resources.
The time to adopt ethical and equitable policies on donations is before, not after, gift horses present themselves.
At this point the Addison project should move forward. But as the school board and McGee now scurry to justify approving the Addison plan by spending $163,000 from the bond fund to study facilities needs at the other elementary schools when there is no assurance that money will exist to pay for them, let's make it a priority to develop gift policies so we act in the future like a democratic public school system that provides equal opportunities for all our students regardless of their neighborhood or the wealth of their parents.