By Kim Bishop, OSSBA Staff Attorney
In the last few years, there has been a growing trend of individuals making private donations to public school districts and teachers. It is common for school foundations and PTAs to raise money for schools, mainly for extras such as school trips or playground equipment. Private donations are now being made to public school districts and teachers for day-to-day operational expenses.
The internet has further enabled this trend by making it easy to donate to public schools and teachers. Social media allows the appeal for donations to be made faster and reach a broader range of people. The number of online donor sites, also known as crowd funding sites, has rapidly increased over the last few years. DonorsChoose.org is one example of an online donor site. It allows public school teachers or any individual to post online requests for equipment and supplies. DigitalWish.com is another example of an online site which allows teacher to create a classroom technology wish list that supporters can browse and fund. Finally, Adopt-A-Classroom offers a free online e-wallet account to educators who want to solicit financial support from the community.
Educators are also finding new and innovative ways to obtain resources for their classrooms. One teacher in California made headlines when he asked parents and local businesses to sponsor his exams underwrite photocopying costs. He sold a small amount of space at the bottom of each exam, charging $10 per quiz, $20 for tests and $30 per final. In one semester, he had raised enough money to cover a year’s worth of photocopies.
The growing trend of private donations of funds and other resources to public schools raises some legal and practical issues for school district consideration. Public school districts can accept donations. Oklahoma law, 70 O.S. §5-117, allows a school district to “solicit and accept any gift, grant, or donation of money or property for the use of the school district.” The law also states that any gift, grant or donation may be deposited in the general fund or building fund for the school district.
What are the considerations for school districts that are receiving donations from private sources? School district should first check their local policy. OSSBA’s Model Policy CDC sets out certain criteria that apply to donations to school districts. The model policy states that donations will be accepted as long as it will not remove any control from the board of education and will not result in inequitable treatment of any student or student groups.
One issue that school district should address in this policy is who can accept donations. Most local policies authorize the superintendent to accept unsolicited donations, but provides that the board of education must approve any conditional donations, large monetary donations or donations of real property. Most school district policies provide that the board of education reserves the right to accept or decline any proposed donation, depending if the donation follows the board’s policies, goals and objectives. Such a policy will put potential donors on notice that they should talk to the superintendent or board of education before making a donation that the school district may not be able to accept. Also, school districts and donors need to be aware that any donation accepted by the board of education or superintendent will become property of the school district and will need to comply with all state and federal laws.
Private donors sometimes may ask school districts to provide money or gift cards to school district employees. While well intentioned, a school district that agrees to pass a donation on to an employee may create unnecessary issues. Any funds received by school districts become public funds and are therefore subject to restrictions, including the restriction of giving away public money as a gift. In addition, funds distributed to an employee are likely to be considered reportable income to the employee.
Issues such as approval by the school district, ownership and reportable income, can also arise when donations are made directly to school employees. This is particularly true when donations are made to school employees for projects posted on online donor or crowdfunding sites. To lessen those issues, school districts may consider adopting a policy setting conditions for donations to school employees. OSSBA’s Model Policy DHC addresses gifts to staff members. It discourages students, parents, and patrons of the school district from routinely presenting gifts to school district employees. The policy clarifies that simple remembrances expressing affection or gratitude are not a violation of the policy. Unless the donated item or gift is personal, all donations of materials, supplies and equipment will become the school district’s property. This will need to be clearly stated in the policy.
While receiving a donation can be a benefit for a public school, it can sometimes also bring additional challenges. If you have any questions about receiving donations or any of the OSSBA model policies, contact any OSSBA attorney.
This article was originally published in the Summer 2018 Oklahoma School Board Journal.