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Schools caution against pricey teacher gifts

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / December 7, 2009

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School superintendents across the region are penning letters this holiday season to parents, cautioning them against going overboard with gift-giving to teachers, principals, and other staff members.

That means no pricey gift certificates to spas or fancy restaurants, no hard-to-get tickets to the theater or sporting events, no fine wine, or anything else valued at more than $50.

While acknowledging that parents’ gift-giving gestures may be well-intentioned, the superintendents say that the state’s new ethics law forbids public servants, including teachers on public payrolls, from receiving gifts with value in excess of $50. Violations are subject to civil penalties, the superintendents warn.

“Recognizing the risk I take of being perceived as a ‘hum-bug,’ I do need to inform you about laws and regulations affecting gift giving to school staff members,’’ wrote George H. Entwistle 3d, Belmont’s school superintendent, in a recent letter to parents.

It used to be that many parents were satisfied showing their appreciation for their child’s beloved teacher with a tin of homemade cookies, a coffee mug stuffed with chocolate candies, or maybe a pair of hand-knit mittens.

But in the competitive atmosphere in many suburban schools, some parents have been bypassing those economical options for something grandiose. In some cases, parents in a classroom pool money to buy one gift - another no-no under state law, if the gift is valued at more than $50.

“I do think it has gotten out of hand,’’ said Kristen Vogel, a Swampscott mother of two and president of the town’s education foundation.

“Last year one of my daughter’s teachers got a $200 gift certificate. I’ve heard stories of gift certificates to Coach stores. Parents are doing it out of the kindness of their hearts, but they don’t understand it can put teachers in an awkward situation.’’

While the Legislature’s overhaul of the ethics law brought many changes, the $50 rule has actually been in play since 1976, as the result of an appeals court decision that defined a gift of “substantial value’’ as anything that exceeded that level.

It’s unclear to what extent teachers and parents knew of the restriction, but the revamped law now requires all public employees to receive copies of the statute annually, with accompanying regulations, and receive training on the restrictions every two years.

“People need to understand that teachers are public employees and subject to the conflict-of-interest law,’’ said David Giannotti, spokesman for the State Ethics Commission. “Gifts have a tendency to unlevel the playing field and can be exploited.’’

Giannotti said a gift valued at less than $50 could also violate state law if it creates the expectation that the teacher will treat the child with favoritism or take some other specific action, such as boosting the child’s grade or writing a favorable recommendation.

Superintendents said they did not know how often gifts exceed the limit but they suspect it is a rare occurrence. They sent out the letters to parents, in part, to avoid putting teachers in the delicate position of having to turn down a gift and possibly offend or embarrass the giver.

“It’s a matter of communicating and educating,’’ said Maureen Bingham, interim superintendent of Swampscott schools, who sent out a letter to employees and the public in October and posted a copy on the district’s website.

Spending limits are a step in the right direction and should be adopted by private schools as well, according to the Emily Post Institute, a nationally recognized adviser on etiquette.

The institute conducted a survey two years ago that found some California parents were lavishing such gifts as Rolex watches, Prada purses, and high-definition televisions on teachers - examples the institute deemed inappropriate.

The worst gift is cash, which comes across more as a bribe when a public official is involved, unlike holiday tips given to a personal trainer, dog walker, or baby-sitter, said Lizzie Post, a spokeswoman for the institute.

“It’s very important to take time to acknowledge teachers this time of the year, but parents should not be trying to buy favoritism for their children,’’ Post said.

Instead, Post suggested having parent and child express their appreciation in a handwritten note.

“Words are always a wonderful gesture,’’ she said.

Some school districts in recent years have tightened policies on gift-giving, either in response to parental complaints about feeling pressured to chip in for a class gift or because of better understanding of the state law. A few districts have gone as far as banning gifts.

Phyllis Neufeld, president of the Lexington Education Association and a teacher for 33 years, said she knows of no teacher in her school system who has received a gift worth more than $50. Neufeld said she has received gift certificates to Barnes & Noble, inexpensive perfume, soap, or cultural gifts representing a family’s background.

“Gifts at the holiday time are appreciated by teachers, but not expected,’’ Neufeld said.

With school budgets tight, nonprofit foundations supporting a town’s public schools, such as those in Belmont, Lexington, and Swampscott, have been orchestrating somewhat sophisticated gift-giving campaigns that attempt to recognize a teacher’s hard work while also raising money for the schools.

The Lexington Education Foundation, for instance, runs a teacher recognition program in which a parent can donate $20 or more to the foundation in honor of a specific person. In turn, the foundation sends the teacher a gold-star certificate, without specifying the dollar amount of the donation, as well as a personal message from the parent and child.

“The recognition program is one way to support teachers and the school system,’’ said Deb Rourke, a co-president and a mother of three children in the system. “How many mugs does a teacher need?’’

In other cases, around the region, teachers sometimes compile a wish list for things in their classroom, such as highlighters or hand sanitizers, that students may give, rather than some token of appreciation that collects dust. Other teachers simply request no gifts at all.

Carin Casey, co-president of the Parent Teacher Association at the Maria Hastings School in Lexington, said many parents appreciate the wish lists, knowing that teachers may spend hundreds of dollars out of their own wallet for classroom supplies.

“Parents are very interested in staying within the boundaries of the law,’’ Casey said, “and making sure that teachers are not put in the awkward position of saying, ‘I can’t accept the gift.’ ’’