It’s great that local donors want to contribute financially to Lawrence schools, but such donations can play havoc with school equity issues.
Lawrence school board members were right to be miffed about the handling of donated soccer structures at Free State High School.
Board Member Mark Bradford hit the nail on the head when he said “it’s extremely bad practice” to ask the board at Monday’s meeting to accept the donation of materials and labor for structures that had been completed weeks ago. It also is a sign that the board needs to examine and tighten its policy on private donations to our public schools.
The district’s operations and facilities director acknowledged that the donation of the shelters had been mishandled, but added that “the donor wanted them for the first game at home. That was really the stipulation.” That’s an excuse, but it’s not a reason to bypass board channels on a donation. The rush to finish athletic facilities at both high schools this year may have gotten a little out of hand. One wonders whether the same sense of urgency ever applies to the completion of academic facilities.
It’s great that local residents want to assist Lawrence schools, but their generosity can have some adverse impacts. In the interests of equity, when a donation is accepted for one school, the district has a responsibility to provide similar facilities for another school, particularly when it comes to Lawrence’s two oft-compared high schools. This issue arose recently in connection with the new dressing room facilities donated for Free State High School.
District officials already were planning to put shelters at the new fields at both high schools, but donations have the potential to seriously throw facilities out of whack. If a donor had wanted to build the Taj Mahal of soccer shelters at one school, the district would be obligated to spend the money to match it at the other. That wasn’t the case this time, but it could have been, since school officials acknowledge that they allowed construction to proceed without board approval and even before plans for the shelters had been finalized. Apparently, officials are satisfied with the shelters, but the steps that were skipped here certainly create the possibility that the shelters would be either far less than what the district wanted or far more than it could afford to match at Lawrence High.
The good news is that school board members recognize their donations policy — and its enforcement — needs some attention. The board’s donation policy already is under review with the goal of providing a consistent standard for donations across the district.
Another piece of good news for people interested in assisting the local public schools is the existence of the Lawrence Schools Foundation. The nonprofit foundation was established to accept private donations and distribute them in beneficial ways across the district. It provides a whole range of giving options and may be even better equipped than the school board to make sure gifts are accepted and distributed in an equitable way.
Especially with recent cuts in state funding, no potential donor should be discouraged from financially assisting local public schools. As school board members have been reminded, however, it’s important to make sure those gifts go through the proper channels and are handled fairly.