Arlington School Board considers $100 cap on teacher gifts

Tammy Beatty, a defense contractor, said gift giving is strictly off limits when it comes to the civil servants she works with. But there is another class of public employees that the Arlington County mother and millions of parents across the country love to shower with presents during the holiday season: teachers.

To enhance the annual offering of chocolate-covered pretzels,
apple-shaped ornaments and travel coffee mugs, Beatty helps organize a collection for her daughters’ teachers so they take home a more generous — and potentially more useful — token of appreciation. It’s usually a gift card worth a couple hundred dollars.

“They spend all day with our kids,” Beatty said. “And you just feel like you want to gush over these teachers and take care of them.”

Now the Arlington County School Board is trying to put some limits on parents’ generosity by setting a $100 cap on how much a family can spend in a given year on any school employee.

The policy, scheduled for a vote Thursday, aims to curb the potential for favoritism and level the playing field — a consuming challenge for many Washington area school boards that want to encourage parent involvement without exacerbating disparities between rich and poor schools.

“In life, everything is not equal, but there should be boundaries for what we operate within,” said board member James Lander. He said parent largesse at some schools has become the subject of “water cooler talk” about which Parent Teacher Associations had purchased smart boards or iPads for classroom use or the latest extravagant gift a teacher had received.

If approved, the Arlington policy would be more stringent than the state’s policy for lawmakers, which sets no cap for the amount elected officials can receive, although leaders of both parties have said they intend to amend the law, in light of a gift scandal involving Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R).

The Arlington Education Association opposed an early version of the gift policy, calling it unnecessary.

“Educators are ethical people that make ethical decisions daily on lots of topics, and we know the difference between receiving a bribe and receiving a gift out of appreciation,” said Jaim Foster, the association’s president.

Some teachers said the policy would put them in the undesirable position of having to keep track of their gifts and scrutinize them for their dollar value.

Some school districts in the Washington region have already drawn lines on gifts. Montgomery County sets a $100 cap per family per calendar year but limits individual gifts to $20 or less. Fairfax County discourages gift giving and suggests that students write letters to their teachers expressing gratitude or appreciation.

Ethics laws in Massachusetts cap annual spending on teacher gifts at $50 for individual families. Alabama passed a statewide gifts ban two years ago for all public employees — including teachers — but the teacher restrictions were widely unpopular, and lawmakers amended the law so that they could receive gifts worth up to $25.

Arlington County is one of the wealthiest in the nation, with a median household income just shy of $100,000, but the county has pockets of extreme poverty. Some Arlington elementary schools have poverty rates as high as 85 percent.

Board member Emma Violand-Sanchez said she is concerned how the economic divide plays out in gift giving. For teachers at different schools, does it mean “somehow your Christmas is different?” she asked at a Dec. 5 board meeting.

Linda Forehand, a pre-kindergarten special education teacher at Randolph Elementary who has spent her career in higher-poverty schools, said the county’s proposed policy would have little affect on her.

“In my 27 years of teaching, the largest gift I ever got was a $25 gift card for Borders. I usually get mugs and plastic Jesuses,” Forehand said, noting that $5 or $10 could represent a “huge sacrifice” for some of her students’ families.

At wealthier schools in Arlington, gift giving is more organized and more plentiful.

In September, room parents at many elementary schools ask their teachers to fill out surveys requesting information about their hobbies and favorite stores and foods.

During the course of the school year, their interests are reflected in presents, such as favorite candies or gift cards to Starbucks, Lululemon, or Barnes and Noble. Often, parents pool money to give a group gift worth hundreds of dollars. Occasionally, parents give high-priced gift cards or other, more personalized gifts.

Most presents arrive before the holiday break or at the end of the year, although some teachers receive presents for their birthdays or during teacher appreciation week.

Elementary teachers, who play a larger role in the lives of their young students, enjoy most of the largesse. By middle school and high school, students have multiple teachers and are less enthusiastic about showing up to school with brightly wrapped packages or handmade cards.

Arlington’s original gift proposal suggested a $50 cap for the year, but many parents said such a limit would be difficult to maintain.

“I give more than that to custodians and the bus driver in one year,” said one parent who is also a teacher, in an e-mail to the School Board. Some parents said setting a limit might have the unintended consequence of making parents feel pressured to meet it.

Others wrote in favor of the board’s efforts to scale down the “out-of-control gift giving” at some schools. One mother, who signed her letter “Mom to 3” said she had shortchanged babysitters and family friends so she could keep up with the giving at school.

“I felt so much pressure to not be that mom that was talked about for not showing up with a gift in hand,” she wrote.

Homemade gifts would not be counted under the updated policy, nor would any gifts or donations intended for classroom use. That includes stipends that many PTAs give to teachers at the beginning of the year to buy class supplies.

Parents also will still be able to pool money to give teachers larger gifts. “Five parents can come together and give a $500 gift,” Deirdra McLaughlin, assistant superintendent for finance and management services in Arlington schools, told the board at the Dec. 5 meeting.

Beatty, the vice president of the McKinley Elementary School PTA, called the proposed cap “generous” and said she supports the idea of setting a limit.

The Emily Post Institute, run by relatives of the late advice columnist, tracks gift giving practices around the country and suggests dollar amounts that people should keep in mind when thanking service providers during the holidays.

The Holiday Etiquette Center recommends tipping a frequent babysitter the equivalent of an evening’s pay, for example, and a dog walker up to one week’s pay.

A postal worker employed by the federal government should receive a gift worth no more than $20 — and not in cash — to comply with government policy.

But the institute does not include a suggested amount for teachers, because “it’s so varied,” said Peggy Post, the great-
granddaughter-in-law of the columnist. “One hundred dollars,” she noted, “that’s at the high end.”

“We always say, ‘Check the school’s gift policy,’ ” Post said. “And if you are going to give a gift, don’t go over the top.”

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in the Washington region.
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