Gift limits for teachers irk givers, recipients

Many reject fears of undue influence

By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / February 21, 2011

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That $25 gift card to Miss Brown for all her hard work through the school year? Could be more trouble than it’s worth. And don’t even think of getting something costing more than $50, no matter how good she was with the children.

A new state advisory on the rules governing gift-giving to public school teachers is causing a stir for the second straight year, with good government advocates saying big gifts to teachers can be seen as attempts to influence and parents griping about restrictions and red tape.

“It puts teachers in a very awkward position,’’ said Tim Kearnan, a second-grade teacher in Hopkinton who heads the local teachers’ association. “There are a lot of teachers scratching their heads. It’s too bad we’ve reached this point in society when a thank-you gift is looked at sideways.’’

The latest comes as schools notify parents and teachers of a recent statement from the State Ethics Commission reminding that teachers, as public employees, cannot accept gifts from students or parents worth more than $50. Even those worth less can require submitting a public disclosure form.

The rules are longstanding ones, but have recently ignited widespread irritation among teachers, in part because of the requirement for written disclosure if “a reasonable person’’ might think the teacher’s actions would be influenced by the gift.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,’’ said Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. “Why are we spending our time with something as minor as this? There’s no common sense here.’’

Many teachers use presents, typically gift cards to a book or office supply store, to buy items for their classroom, rather than for personal use, Scott and others said. Expensive gifts are rare, they said.

For years, teacher gifts flew under the radar of state oversight, simple tokens of appreciation given at Christmas and the end of the school year. Over time, gifts from individuals have given way to larger gifts from the entire class, often earmarked for books and supplies.

But controversy simmered in 2009, when the ethics commission reminded schoolteachers that they are subject to the same guidelines that govern other public employees. Though teachers lack the power of some public employees to influence policy or lucrative government contracts, the ethics commission reasons, they do influence young lives with grades, college recommendations, and even student placements. That raises the potential to be manipulated by gifts.

Yet with many schools struggling financially, parent groups increasingly have been putting money into a pot for substantial gifts from the classroom as a whole, often to help buy supplies. That led many parents to ask the ethics commission to allow more expensive gifts, as long as they’re given by an entire class.

“The parents that wanted to pool resources were irate,’’ said David Giannotti, a spokesman for the ethics commission, which enforces state conflict-of-interest and financial disclosure laws.

So in December, the ethics commission announced that it had carved out an exemption to the $50 rule: Teachers could now receive class gifts worth up to $150 as long they did not know who contributed or how much.

Giannotti said the angst over the new rules has been overblown, saying he could not recall a single complaint over gifts brought to the state’s attention.

“Teacher gifts just aren’t an issue,’’ he said.

The ethics commission provided examples meant to illuminate the circumstances that might require disclosure. Homemade cookies would not require disclosure. Nor would candy, or gifts under $10 in value, or hand-picked flowers.

But a $40 bottle of wine to a teacher about to write a college recommendation, the advisory made clear, would.

“There’s no hard and fast rule,’’ Giannotti said. “It’s what a reasonable person would conclude looking at the circumstances. If the receipt creates an appearance problem, the teacher needs to disclose it.’’

So far, educators say not much has changed because of the guidelines. Gifts continue to be modest, for the most part, making disclosures unnecessary.

“I haven’t gotten any,’’ said Ann Koufman-Frederick, superintendent of Watertown schools.

Kearnan said he has received gifts from the whole class worth $150 and up, but that individual presents are typically around $25.

“I think I have to disclose those now,’’ he said.

Brad MacGowan, a college counselor at Newton North High School, said he can’t imagine parents trying to influence school employees, and said he has never received a pricey gift.

“Memo pads, calendars, that kind of thing,’’ he said. “Nothing that would rise to the threshold of disclosure, not even close. It’s not part of the public school culture to give gifts like that.’’

MacGowan said he appreciates handwritten cards the most, and saves them all.

Tim Sullivan of PTO Today, a magazine for parent-teacher groups, said the regulations are a solution in search of a problem.

“I have never seen any parents or teacher try to do the wrong thing on this,’’ he said. “The absurdity is the attention it receives. It’s not like tipping your state rep.’’

Peter Schworm can be reached at