Editorial: The risks of secrecy

School board splits on whether and how to accept large anonymous donations

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.


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26 people like this
Posted by Old Timer
a resident of Professorville
on Dec 8, 2017 at 9:00 am

I’m not seeing the problem here. If a donor wishes to remain anonymous, who does that harm? Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.

10 people like this
Posted by BIll Glazier
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 8, 2017 at 11:09 am

10 years ago, we had a very large controversy concerning individual families making contributions to school PTA's, prior to the establishment of PIE. It became clear district policy that contributions to individual schools were not allowed. This was to prevent one school from having great resources, and another having little to none.

This now takes things to the extreme. One school can be made of gold and silver, and another falling apart. This is perhaps an extreme, but I doubt there are 13 billionaires willing to build an individual elementary school for Palo Alto. So, you know that Addison, Hays and Duveneck will get their gold plated school, and everyone will be SOL if this is the new policy.

I will admit I was not on the side of PIE when it was discussed 10 years ago. But given we have made it the policy, and it has proven to work, why would we now revert and let someone do something like this? Dow e know need to get Zuckerberg to rebuild Duveneck and Larry Page to rebuild Hays?

We are no different than Meno or Sacred Heart if this is the case.

10 people like this
Posted by Barron Park dad
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 8, 2017 at 11:31 am

To the poster immediately above:

The District already has safeguards in place to ensure equity across schools and to ensure that one school doesn't become gold-plated and another school falling apart. So I'm not worried about that.

This editorial addresses a different issue: what is the obligations of a public school district to keep the identities of a donor anonymous, if that should be their wish to do so? This issue is more tricky, and I'd like to learn more, but I am currently leaning towards allowing that. That is, I don't see the harm of free anonymous money.

Like this comment
Posted by Doesn’t add up
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Dec 8, 2017 at 11:41 am

It sounded to me as though the opponents of the policy wished to continue the practice of accepting anonymous donations. Which is in direct contrast to the statement above that all donations should be public.
Perhaps all donations should be made publicly. But the discussion I heard was between no one at the district knowing the identity of the donor vs our trustees considering the donation and discussing their rationale in public. That sounds good to me.

28 people like this
Posted by Reader
a resident of Esther Clark Park
on Dec 8, 2017 at 2:08 pm

Good editorial. In a district with serious trust issues, how can they figure that this convoluted policy supports trust? The superintendent "tells the board in confidence?" What does that mean? Are they not allowed to repeat it or even write it down? This policy basically describes a conspiracy to keep a secret on an important matter of the public's business. Shame on them for going along.

13 people like this
Posted by what is this district thinking?
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 8, 2017 at 4:20 pm

The fact they think they've figured away around the Brown Act tells you all you need to know about how bad this policy smells.

Time for new board members.

14 people like this
Posted by WH Mom
a resident of Walter Hays School
on Dec 8, 2017 at 10:07 pm

Is the Weekly literally arguing that the district should turn down 15 million dollars? Because the district has a giant budget deficit if you listened to the first part of the meeting (thanks to Max McGee and Cathy Mak).

It occurs to me that there was an editorial IN FAVOR of the Addison gift, so it looks like the Weekly wants to let Addison have 15 million dollars and the pull the ladder up so no other school can have the money.

You know and I know that you don't really mean what you are writing. Let's say the board passed the "Palo Alto Weekly No Anonymous Donation Policy". If a donor came along and wanted to give 20M to Walter Hayes school do you imagine in your wildest dreams that any school board would actually adhere to that policy? They would simply vote to make an exception. The end. That's what happened in the Addison case, a bandwagon that notably YOU were on too.

All this policy does is recognize that reality, and sets a process for that to happen that provides oversight and transparency.

The board can turn down any anonymous donation at any time. So your desired outcome is not foreclosed and I will look forward to reading your editorial -- not like the one you wrote in the case of Addison -- demanding that the board turn down the next $20M that comes in for Walter Hayes on the grounds of your abstract principles.

You should get started writing it now, however, so that you have time to correct the fatal logical flaw in your argument that anonymous donations create the risk of favoritism because people could find out who the donor is, while public donations, in which people find out who the donor is, don't. I think that you should maybe take a closer look at that one.

7 people like this
Posted by Reader
a resident of Esther Clark Park
on Dec 8, 2017 at 10:33 pm

@WH Mom - By my rough calculations, $20M in bond funds costs about $30 per property taxpayer per year (tax deductible - for now!). We are one of the richest school districts in the state. We can afford it.

The operating budget shortfall has nothing to do with the donation or anything related to building funds. They take this donation or not, the budget shortfall is the same (as you probably know already).

This policy certainly can't be the answer. If they want to say, "we'll just take gifts from unknown sources, we don't care, bring them on" - they should just say that. The policy, really a convoluted sham as far as I can tell, makes it worse - "too clever by half" as my mother used to say.

I hope that Addison donor will read about this controversy and sensibly reveal their identity for the good of the schools and the community, which they obviously value and support. Thanks for giving; now help the school board do the right thing.

20 people like this
Posted by Old Timer
a resident of Professorville
on Dec 9, 2017 at 8:49 am

@Reader: There are good reasons for donors to remain anonymous. Once you make a large donation, you're a mark for a million other grifters with their hands out. You can never go out in public again.

Forcing charitable givers into the spotlight really deprive the schools of benefits they otherwise could have had.

7 people like this
Posted by Reader
a resident of Esther Clark Park
on Dec 9, 2017 at 12:43 pm

@Old Timer, funny, I see Dick Peery out in public fairly often, and his donations add up to pretty big numbers. (Thank you Mr. Peery! You are awesome.)

As far as I know, the only big donation where the donor is not known to the district is the Addison donation. Do you know of any others? And the Addison project could simply be done with building bond money if the district thought it was a high enough priority.

I get that people want to make anonymous donations - most for good reasons, though, sadly, some for bad reasons. My view is that a public agency doesn't have the wherewithal or the luxury to sort it out; they should "just say no."

19 people like this
Posted by Hoover parent
a resident of Hoover School
on Dec 9, 2017 at 1:03 pm

The idea that bond money is free and so anonymous donations are fine to turn down is belied by the recent school board discussion of the renovation of Hoover. Todd Collins argued that the project is good but maybe not as good as projects that could be done with the money at other schools and voted against it. Increasing the pie makes it possible to fund more projects with the same public dollars. Unless we're going to have a billion dollar bond measure, private donations are going to make it possible to fund projects that otherwise wouldn't happen. Turning down free money isn't free.

19 people like this
Posted by Secret Strings Attached
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 9, 2017 at 7:21 pm

The problem is not just that the public is being kept from knowing about the public's business, but that the $15M gift is with major strings attached (9 months of working with the donor's rep), in terms of the project plan and also the secret influence of this donor going forward. It is not just an anonymous cash donation. It is a project where the donor is involved and dictating what they want for our public schools in secret. This is wrong and a real shame.

7 people like this
Posted by Reality
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Dec 10, 2017 at 9:06 am

Nothing ever remains anonymous forever.
At some point the name of Addison donor will leak out, could be years from now after all is said and done.

Board members keeping silent on a name of a donor should the anonymous situation arise again, is slim. Secrets are hard to keep
and prized info so easy to share!

Donations or no Donations special treatment in schools is rampant
Principals favor their pet fmilies or moms or certain kids.
They seem to easily get extra support when others who need can’t qualify, or they get placed with more desirable teachers .
Hard not to take care of your friends.

People are vain - anonymous donations might not be your problem moving forward and your challenge may become donors that want their name on everything!!

6 people like this
Posted by PAUSD parent
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 10, 2017 at 3:48 pm

Everybody knows the donor is Marisa Mayer.

11 people like this
Posted by @PAFeeePress
a resident of another community
on Dec 11, 2017 at 2:24 am

Secrecy? The Palo Alto Daily Post makes it unquestionabley clear who write its editorials Dave Price.... Whereas, your editorial staff remain behind a shroud of secrecy.

JFK On Secrecy And Censorship Web Link

“The very word "secrecy" is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths and to secret proceedings. We decided long ago that the dangers of excessive and unwarranted concealment of pertinent facts far outweighed the dangers which are cited to justify it. Even today, there is little value in opposing the threat of a closed society by imitating its arbitrary restrictions. Even today, there is little value in insuring the survival of our nation if our traditions do not survive with it. And there is very grave danger that an announced need for increased security will be seized upon by those anxious to expand its meaning to the very limits of official censorship and concealment. That I do not intend to permit to the extent that it is in my control. And no official of my Administration, whether his rank is high or low, civilian or military, should interpret my words here tonight as an excuse to censor the news, to stifle dissent, to cover up our mistakes or to withhold from the press and the public the facts they deserve to know.” and it’s entire staff is one of the cities most pronounced offenders of media censorship...

4 people like this
Posted by Bitsy
a resident of Mayfield
on Dec 11, 2017 at 1:14 pm

I don't believe the donation is secret, but it is anonymous, which has been a long standing option in making charitable donations.

The Peerys want their names attached to the monies that they give and request naming rights. This anonymous donor is probably wanting to avoid having a spotlight on them or their children so as to not single them out as being wealthier than others.

4 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 11, 2017 at 2:23 pm

@Bitsy, you are mistaken, I'm afraid. They've said many times that no one at the district knows the identity of the donor - it is secret from them, as well as from the public. It could be Marissa Meyer; it could be a drug lord; it could be [fill in your favorite]. That's what makes it so unusual and problematic.

7 people like this
Posted by Kathy Jordan
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 12, 2017 at 11:51 am

Transparency and openness and a commitment to complying with the spirit and intention of state and federal laws that protect all of our interests is something the District has been shown to be lacking in, per the sexual assault incidents, and the prior, multiple OCR investigations. While no one would want to refuse any thoughtful and generous donation to our public schools, those values and that commitment stated above are more important, in my view, than any one time or ongoing gift. It's unfortunate that the donor was uncomfortable with their identity being made public.

2 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 12, 2017 at 3:40 pm

I suggest a reasonable compromise: annual donations up to a certain amount (let’s say 10k) may be given anonymously; anything more in a school year then requires disclosure. There are pros and cons to anonymity, we get this. There is also the risk and APPEARANCE of *possible* favoritism and influence, so let’s be fair to the general public. This means - I will argue - something like my compromise idea.
Insofar as the rumored donor, I am sure a public figure like that already gets approached a lot because prospecting for donors has already become quite sophisticated.

24 people like this
Posted by That gal
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 12, 2017 at 7:15 pm

Most people who can give $17 million to a local elementary school are well known to the asking community. I wish the donor here would just come forward. They put the school board in an awkward position - take secret money, keep a secret, or turn down helpful money. All three are pretty unattractive. Donor, please come out! While I'm sure you secrecy was well-intended, it has now become a problem, which I'm sure you never intended. We will welcome and thank you - for your generosity and your transparency!

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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