Cary News

February 17, 2014

Gifts to Wake teachers get a closer look

The Wake County school system review could result in changes such as defining the current limit on “token gifts” and banning teachers from taking gift cards that are meant for their personal use as opposed to classroom use.

The gifts that parents give to Wake County teachers to thank them for their work are getting some extra scrutiny from leaders of North Carolina’s largest school system.

The school system is reviewing its employee gift policy, which bans cash gifts and says that employees can only accept “token gifts of insubstantial value.” The policy, which some principals have interpreted as preventing any personal gifts, could be revised to set dollar limits on gifts and to ban gift cards unless they’re given for classroom use.

“What’s a gift of insubstantial value?” school board member Jim Martin asked at a board committee meeting earlier this month. “Is a gift card of $25 an insubstantial value?”

Wake’s review comes at a time when other school systems and even states have set hard limits on personal gifts that parents and groups can give to teachers. The issue is avoiding either the actual or perceived use of gifts to influence teachers.

Massachusetts allows teachers to take a gift of up to $150 if it’s from multiple parents but only up to $50 from individual parents. Alabama limits parents from giving teachers more than $50 a year in gifts and $25 per occasion.

In December, the Arlington school board in northern Virginia approved a gift limit of $100 per year that a teacher could receive from each individual family.

Wake, like other Triangle districts, says only nominal gifts can be accepted without setting a specific dollar limit. Under the North Carolina Code of Ethics, an educator “refuses to accept significant gifts, favors or additional compensation that might influence or appear to influence professional decisions or actions.

Julie Stacy, an Apex parent, said she doesn’t give gifts to her daughter’s fifth-grade teacher in order to influence a grade. She noted how important teachers are to her child’s education and how they may spend more time during the week with her daughter than she does.

“When someone spends so much time with your children, you want to thank them,” she said.

Stacy said she gives small gifts throughout the year such as chocolate for Valentine’s Day and a gift card to HomeGoods because her daughter’s teacher recently moved into the area.

One parent’s gifts

Gary Lewis, a Cary parent and president of the Wake County PTA Council, says he gives a $25 gift card to all 14 of his two sons’ middle school teachers.

“As a parent, I doubt that I’d be influencing a teacher by a $20 or $25 gift card,” he said.

In November, the Wake County PTA Council encouraged school PTAs to hold a “Thanks for Giving” week for teachers. But Lewis said that some schools prohibited parents from giving gifts.

The state’s Code of Ethics says that 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.”

Lewis’ concerns helped move the school board’s policy committee to ask school administrators to begin reviewing the gift policy. Any changes would affect all employees but would likely have the greatest impact on teachers.

The ensuing board discussion touched on the difference between gifts meant for personal use and those meant for school use.

Cards for personal use

Mark Winters, Wake’s chief finance officer, said that when PTAs want to give teachers gift cards for school supplies the administration encourages them to give through the school office. This way there’s a record of the gift cards given to the teacher.

One result of the review is that teachers could be barred from accepting gift cards for their personal use. School board attorney Jonathan Blumberg advised the board that he considers gift cards to be the same as cash gifts, which are banned under the current gift policy.

School board member Monika Johnson-Hostler said the State Auditor’s office also sees gift cards as cash.

Lewis, the PTA council president, said in an interview that he’d be worried about gift cards being banned for personal gifts. He said gift cards give teachers more flexibility than parents just bringing in food.

“If I’m a teacher with 30 kids, you can only have so many mugs and so much chocolate,” he said.

Martin, the chairman of the policy committee, said it would help to provide clarity in the policy on the difference between gifts for personal and non-personal use.

Johnson-Hostler said any differentiation should still allow classroom parents to pool their money for a gift card that the teacher can use for classroom supplies.

Superintendent Jim Merrill said they can also report back to the board about the dollar thresholds used by other districts for personal gifts.

Larry Nilles, president of Wake NCAE, the largest group representing Wake’s school employees, said in an interview he can understand why the district may want to review the policy. But he questioned the timing.

“On the list of things we need to be considering, there are a whole lot of other ones that need prioritization,” he said.

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