Wake County schools taking criticism for reviewing teacher gift policy

Posted by T. Keung Hui on February 17, 2014 

Based on the online comments in today’s article, the Wake County school system is taking a PR beating for reviewing its policy on employee gifts.

Various commentators have said it’s unfair for the school system to consider placing any restrictions on gifts for teachers at a time when educators are dealing with low pay and tough working conditions. But the initial purpose of the review was to clarify that teachers can accept gifts. From there it’s morphed into potential changes that could ban teachers from accepting gift cards for personal use.

As the article notes, the current policy does have limits – if somewhat vague ones – on what teachers and other school employees can accept as gifts.

“School employees shall not accept any cash gifts,” according to Wake’s policy. “School employees shall not accept any other gifts, except token gifts of insubstantial value; provided however, that school employees shall never receive or accept any gift, reward, gratuity, or other compensation from any manufacturer, merchant, dealer, publisher, or author for influencing or recommending to the school system or any school that it use a seller' goods, wares, merchandise, materials, supplies, services, or equipment.”

It’s in line with the “ Code of Ethics For North Carolina Educators,” which says an educator “refuses to accept significant gifts, favors or additional compensation that might influence or appear to influence professional decisions or actions.”

But Wake’s wording is vague enough that it’s resulted in inconsistent application across the district’s 170 schools. Gary Lewis, president of the Wake County PTA Council, said that some schools banned teachers from accepting gifts when school PTAs held “Thanks For Giving” week in November.

Lewis asked board members to provide more clarity so that PTAs could give personal gifts to teachers in addition to their traditional role of giving gifts for school supplies.

At the Feb. 6 policy committee meeting, school board member Susan Evans said she’s also heard from teachers who said the gift policy is being applied inconsistently.

Rather than try to decide what are “token gifts of insubstantial value,” some principals have told their teachers to reject all personal gifts. It’s been noted at school board meetings that retirements among Baby Boomers have left Wake with more new and younger principals than ever before.

Such restrictions by individual principals go against the state Code of Ethics, which says districts shall not “restrict the acceptance of gifts or tokens of minimal value offered and accepted openly from students, parents or other persons in recognition or appreciation of services.”

The lack of clarity in the wording is why staff is looking into setting a specific amount.

“I’m not sure how we approach a teacher being able to get a nominal thank you from a family,” Evans said at the committee meeting.

“That’s our challenge,” replied school board member Jim Martin, chairman of the policy committee. “What’s a gift of insubstantial value? Is a gift card of $25 an insubstantial value?”

The article noted some gift limits set by other districts and states.

But in opening the door to reviewing the policy to define what is an “insubstantial value,” it put Wake into the position of having to address existing wording that bans cash gifts. The policy was last revised in 1999. Since then, gift cards have become far more popular.

In the course of the discussion, school board attorney Jonathan Blumberg advised the board that he considers gift cards to be the same as cash gifts. School board member Monika Johnson-Hostler noted how the State Auditor’s Office also considers gift cards to be cash.

So what went from letting schools know that teachers can accept token gifts is now potentially moving toward a ban on accepting gift cards in certain situations. School officials absolutely still want gift cards to be given when they’re for things like school supplies, which are considered the property of the school and not of the teacher.

By the time staff reports back to the policy committee, potentially next month, you could see these things happen:

• A recommended dollar limit for personal gifts.

• A ban on accepting gift cards for personal gifts.

• Wording in the policy that encourages parents to give gift cards meant for classroom use to the school rather than directly to teachers. Parents will probably still be able to earmark the cards for specific teachers, but the school bookkeeper would dole out the cards and have a record of the transactions.

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