Teacher gift list raises questions
PTA president says list offering suggestions for holiday presents at Tuscarora Elementary came from an innocent place'
'Tis the season for wish lists and giving gifts, but the PTA at one Frederick County elementary school has raised eyebrows for sending out a list of suggested gifts for teachers which includes a pedicure, silver jewelry and items from stores such as the Gap and Ann Taylor Loft.
Frederick County Public Schools' policy prohibits teachers from soliciting gifts. The list was compiled by the Tuscarora Elementary PTA, and names 28 teachers along with specific gift requests for each of them.
On the list, which was sent home to parents in students' backpacks earlier this month, some teachers asked for classroom supplies, such as printer ink, colorful Post-it Notes or artwork made by students.
Others asked for gift cards from Frederick restaurant Dutch's Daughter, Outback Steakhouse, or shops such as Express, Nike, the Gap, Ann Taylor Loft or Target. One teacher requested Keurig coffee pods.
The list was accompanied by a note telling parents that teachers "in no way expect a gift" and that some were "reticent to offer suggestions."
Still, the list has generated public attention and raised questions about the school system's policy on gifts for teachers. The policy states that "a school system employee may not knowingly accept any gift, directly or indirectly, from any person that he knows or has reason to know ... is subject to the authority of the school system."
The policy also carves out several exceptions, and is open to interpretation, said Jamie Cannon, the school system's legal counsel.
School officials will not say if the Tuscarora wish list violates that policy, and Marita Loose, the school system's spokeswoman, would not comment on it.
She did note, however, that the school system handled a similar case this year, not so much because it violated the policy, but because it generated negative attention in the community. That case also involved a PTA-generated list that gave parents specific gift suggestions for specific teachers.
"It really did not contradict the policy, but it raised questions in the community," said Loose, noting that the list generated discussions in e-mails, on Facebook and on the radio.
She said she could not remember which school it involved, and she would not confirm if it was Tuscarora.
The problem was more with the perception of teachers soliciting presents, rather than with teachers accepting the gifts, Loose said. "It really isn't appropriate for teachers to be soliciting gifts, even though in this case it was someone else soliciting them on their behalf ... though it was done with the best of intentions," she said.
Loose would not say how the school system handled the case. But she did stress that whole idea was executed by the PTA, not school officials or teachers. "Some of the teachers felt uncomfortable to ask for gifts," Loose said.
A PTA initiative
Tracy Hilliard, principal at Tuscarora Elementary, said no one on her staff was involved in the PTA initiative that resulted in the list. "It was not a teacher-driven and not a school-driven initiative," she said. "None of us expect to receive anything from our parents. It was something our PTA chose to do.
"They were just trying to do something positive."
Hilliard said she hasn't heard any complaints or concerns from parents about the list. "My door is always open if parents have concerns," she said.
Stephanie Tognetti, president of Tuscarora Elementary's PTA, defended the list, and said the PTA put it together at the request of parents who asked for assistance in picking gifts for their children's teachers. "This all came from just an innocent place," she said. "We just wanted to help parents get to know our teachers."
The initiative is voluntary, Tognetti said, and no parent was ever required to get a gift for a teacher or to follow the list. "We are the PTA, we serve the community," she said. "This was done with the purest of intentions. It was just an informative survey. And we had many parents thank us for the good information."
The Gazette e-mailed six of the teachers on the list on Tuesday afternoon. Five of the teachers did not respond before The Gazette's deadline on Wednesday. Kimberly Doyle, a kindergarten teacher at the school, responded by saying, "I have two jobs. I don't have time to talk."
Daphne Gabb, president of the Frederick County Council of PTAs, could see why some question the list. She said she didn't know of it before being approached by The Gazette, but she noted that it would have been better if the Tuscarora PTA did not connect the names of specific teachers with specific gift suggestions, and just gave out a general list of ideas.
While the Frederick County Council of PTAs cannot mandate what individual school PTAs do at their schools, the organization can offer training and support to teach parents how to handle such tricky situations, Gabb said.
She said she understands what made the PTA at Tuscarora Elementary compile the list. Giving gifts to teachers can be tricky. Gabb, whose children are now out of elementary school, said parents just want to show their appreciation for teachers, especially when they know that a teacher has gone an extra mile to help their child.
"It's a common practice in elementary schools especially," Gabb said.
Gabb said that she also gave a Christmas present to her children's elementary teachers before her children moved to middle school. In middle and high school, where her children have many teachers, Gabb sends out thank-you notes to teachers as well as the principal.
A violation of policy?
Accepting gifts does not necessarily mean that the policy is being violated, said Cannon, the school system's legal counsel.
The wording of the policy leaves room for interpretation, and it does not immediately clarify if parents of students could be considered to be "subject to the authority of the school system," Cannon said.
However, any parent concerned about a potential conflict of interest is free to file a complaint with the school board's ethics panel, which can then interpret the policy on a case-by-case basis, Cannon said.
"This is one policy where the law says what we have to put in it," Cannon said. "I've never had a complaint raised related to parents giving gifts to teachers."
Gary Brennan, president of the Frederick County Teachers Association, said he wasn't familiar with the situation at Tuscarora and would not comment on it.
But Brennan, who is also a veteran high school teacher, said he has never heard of a case where a conflict of interest was created because a teacher received an extravagant gift from a student or a parent.
"There is a long tradition of parents giving small gifts to teachers, especially in elementary school," Brennan said.
"In high school some students would bake cookies for teachers," he added. "It's just a nice expression to show they appreciate what teachers do."
According to Loose, the school system spokeswoman, the policy gives no specific value as a guideline for what is considered an appropriate present for a teacher. And though all teachers receive a copy of the policy, they receive no specific training on what, if any, gifts to accept from parents, Loose said.
"Gifts for teachers are absolutely optional," she said. "The gifts should be at reasonable amount and they usually are."
Meanwhile, some Tuscarora Elementary parents expressed concern that the issue is attracting undeserved negative attention to their school, their PTA volunteers and teachers.
Beth Hughes, a mother of a first-grader and a third-grader, said that one of her children's teachers asked for a donation, while the other asked for erasers.
"We are not spending $20 on a teacher," she said. "And it doesn't have to be expensive."
In fact, Hughes said she lets her children pick their teacher's presents at The Dollar Store. And she intends to do that again this year.
Jen Shell, a mother of first-grader at Tuscarora Elementary, agreed. She said she never saw the list of gift ideas as something that was outrageous or something that was imposed on her.
"I didn't take it at all as a registry," said Shell, who said that most families would be getting small gifts for their teachers, regardless of whether the PTA sent out a list of suggestions, which is what happened last year.
Shell said she got some body care products for her child's teacher last year and is still planning to get a small gift this year.
"Some people were going to spend a certain amount on that anyway," said Shell. "We all are so grateful for what they do for our children. And Christmas is about giving. It is the reason for the season."