Is it OK for a group of parents to give a teacher a gift card of $100 or more for Christmas?
That’s a question that has caused concern — and confusion — in Riverside Elementary School District 96 for the past few weeks after the issue was raised, by happenstance, at the Nov. 4 meeting of the school board’s finance committee.
District policy and state law prohibit district employees from receiving any gifts from a “prohibited source” during a calendar year having a value of $100 or more. And parents of school children have been interpreted to be “prohibited sources,” according to a question and answer sheet prepared by the Illinois Council of School Attorneys.
This policy, which is not new, has caused some to question the common practice in District 96 elementary schools where a room parent will solicit other parents to contribute $5 or $10 to buy a teacher a Christmas gift, which is usually in the form of a gift card. This also typically happens in the spring during Teacher Appreciation Week in District 96.
Two teachers who have asked not to be identified because of the confusion surrounding the policy issue, say room parents have typically given them gift cards worth $75 to $125 or $150 at the high end.
“The gifts rarely ever went over, you know, $100,” said Susan Casey, the president of the Blythe Park PTA. “At Blythe Park it typically is twice, at the end of the school year and at the holiday season time.”
David Sellers, District 96’s interim director of finance and operations, says that his interpretation has been that a gift from a group of parents should not exceed $99.99.
Sellers said his previous employer, Lyons Township High School District 204, had a strict policy of no gifts, whether from an individual or a group or parents, exceeding that amount.
He said he prepared a tutorial for the staff at LTHS on the subject and offered to educate District 96 staff about the issue.
But the executive director of the state of Illinois Executive Ethics Commission says that his commission’s interpretation is that if no single individual gives a public employee $100, a group gift of more than $100 is OK.
“Each district could interpret this differently,” said Ethics Commission Director Chad Fornoff. “If it were here before the Ethics Commission what we would do is treat each individual parent as the prohibited source. So long as no one parent gave a gift of no more than $100 that would be an exception to the gift ban.”
Fornoff said that his body only has jurisdiction over employees of the state of Illinois and state universities. Each unit of local government, including local school districts, is required to adopt a gift policy at least as restrictive as the state gift ban act.
Most local school districts, including District 96, have just incorporated the state gift ban act into their policy.
But just to show how confusing the law is Brookfield-LaGrange Park District 95 Superintendent Mark Kuzniewski said he thinks that gift worth $100 or more given to a district employee, even if the money come from multiple sources, would violate the spirit and intent of the law.
When the issue was raised by a parent at the Nov. 18 school board meeting, District 96 school board member Juliet Boyd, a lawyer, said the district had instructed the administration to make the staff and parents aware of the policy and that the board would not change the policy or offer any interpretation of it.
“We’ve done our job,” Boyd said. “We’ve communicated to the teachers and the PTAs, all of whom are smart adults, who can read the same information we can read. It is not the role of the Board of Education to give legal advice. It is not the role of the Board of Education to legislate. It’s not limited to teachers; it’s all public officials.”
On Nov. 11, District 96 Superintendent Bhavna Sharma-Lewis sent an email, which the Landmark has obtained, to principals about the issue. The message included an email from Sellers and advice from one of the school district’s attorneys, Brian Crowley.
“Mr. Crowley’s advice is for a practical solution the PTA limit gifts to less than $100 to teachers to avoid any argument that that the policy has been violated,” Sharma-Lewis wrote.
Gifts of educational materials are specifically exempted from the gift ban act.
Komarek School District 94’s policy also mirrors the state gift ban act. Group gifts are not the rule at Komarek, Superintendent Neil Pellicci said.
“The only time they do a collective gift is for a baby shower or a wedding,” Pellicci said.
Parents in District 96 were confused by the suggestion that they might have been doing something wrong by giving gifts to teachers. But the PTA presidents were feeling better after being briefed by their principals.
“We want to make sure our teachers feel appreciated and loved and just a part of things,” Casey said. “I think if they were removing it, that would really concern a lot of people and it’s a reasonable concern.
“We really appreciate the teachers, and I don’t think giving five or ten dollars is that big of a sacrifice. It’s being generous to people who are being generous to our children.”
Sue Gersch, the co-president of the Hollywood School PTA agreed.
“I don’t think it’s much of a big deal,” Gersch said. “We at Hollywood don’t plan on changing what we do. We typically do a group gift to each [teacher]. The parents typically take up a collection and whoever wants to donate, donates and it’s usually at Christmas time and at the end of year, and I don’t see how under this policy we would have to change anything.”