When developing a new public policy, a sure warning sign should be when the policy has to thread a needle to avoid violating existing laws and, in doing so, becomes convoluted and irrational.
The Palo Alto school board struggled Tuesday night trying to balance competing interests of transparency and donor privacy, and a bare majority (Ken Dauber, Jennifer DiBrienza, Terry Godfrey) approved a new policy that, in our opinion, skates on the edge of the law and brings an unacceptable level of secrecy.
The issue arose because in March 2015 a representative of a still-undisclosed person approached Addison Elementary School Principal Amanda Boyce with the desire to give as much as $15 million or more to improve the school, Palo Alto's oldest and smallest campus.
While the potential gift raised the issue of equity among other schools, the request for anonymity added another troubling question: Should a major donor to a public agency be permitted to be unknown to the public?
Instead of immediately bringing the matter to the school board, former Superintendent Max McGee allowed district staff to work with the donor's representative for nine months before word eventually leaked out, and he then waited another three months before disclosing details and requesting the board's approval of a $17 million concept plan and the acceptance of an initial $1.3 million anonymous donation.
With no policy in place on accepting anonymous gifts, McGee overstepped and put the school board in an untenable position after months of work had gone into the undisclosed project. The board eventually acquiesced and approved moving forward with the anonymous donation, a decision we reluctantly supported under the circumstances.
For the last 18 months, the board has discovered how difficult it is to craft a policy to guide these matters in the future. Several meetings of the board's policy committee have been devoted to the issue, which was brought back to the board this week with a poorly conceived and badly drafted approach to handling anonymous donations.
The new policy appropriately requires that gifts of more than $50,000 be approved by the school board and that the board discuss and provide direction to the superintendent at an early stage when a potential gift of more than $1 million has been proposed by a donor.
For a donor who wishes to be anonymous, however, the policy creates a bizarre road map for skirting both the Brown Act open-meetings law and the California Public Records Act. It states that the superintendent will determine the identity of the donor and will then "inform the Board in confidence." But it also allows the board to vote in a public meeting to waive being informed of the donor's name. Proponents of the policy argue that having a public discussion on granting a waiver would effectively "sunshine" the issue. We strongly disagree.
On what basis would a board member vote against being informed by the superintendent of the identity of the donor? And what if it did vote to learn the identity? How do five board members and the superintendent knowing the identity of a donor, but not the public, provide any accountability?
This policy is a clever attempt to appear to construct safeguards against improper influence of anonymous donors, but in fact would likely lead to rumors, suspicions and controversy. It promotes behavior that violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the state Constitution, the Brown Act and the Public Records Act. A superintendent making individual phone calls to each trustee to avoid holding what would be an illegal meeting and avoid creating a public document so it couldn't be viewed is an end-around to bypass the laws intended to ensure transparency in public agencies.
We commend trustees Melissa Baten Caswell and Todd Collins for seeing these problems and opposing the new policy and are disappointed that Dauber, DiBrienza and Godfrey decided the new policy was good enough.
Previous donors of major gifts, such as the Peery Family, who generously funded the new gyms at Paly, have accepted that donations to a public school need to be public information. The city of Menlo Park has insisted that John Arrillaga's gifts of the Burgess Gym and, potentially, a new library be publicly disclosed even though he preferred to make them anonymously.
In a school district that is already vulnerable to feelings that some parents have more influence than others, there will always be questions about what advantages an anonymous donor may later seek or receive for their children by selectively revealing their special donor status to teachers, administrators or board members. Whether it be a starting position or leadership role on a sports team or in the school play, assignment to the best teachers, special college recommendations, leniency in discipline or influence over school policy, there is simply too much opportunity for abuse and unfairness.
These practices are all too familiar in private schools. Our public school district can and must do better.