Ethical Educator

A Hefty Gift of Appreciation 
School Administrator, April 2022

Scenario: In appreciation of an elementary school principal’s care and personal attention to their 8-year-old autistic daughter during the pandemic, a couple present him with a pair of front row Elton John concert tickets. The principal thinks he must refuse them as a conflict of interest, but colleagues in other schools feel he should accept the gift as it was the parents’ decision. How should he proceed? 

Chris Nicastro:

Many teachers and principals did amazing work with kids during an unprecedented time. Children with special needs in some cases struggled more than others and, thankfully, many educators worked hard to meet the challenge. 

Board policy probably governs gifts to staff and should be considered. In this case, given the exceptional circumstances, the principal might consult with the superintendent, who in turn could consult with the school board. In these difficult times, a well-meaning gift from grateful parents might constitute an acceptable waiver of existing policy. So long as the waiver applies to all staff it seems appropriate and timely.  

The school district needs to make sure that everyone is aware of the waiver and understands it applies, for the time being, to anyone receiving a gift for exceptional service.  

MaryEllen Elia:

It is often difficult for parents and caregivers to understand that what we do for their children is what we strive to do for all children. It is thoughtful that parents want to reward individuals for the special care they see given to their child, but the principal is right to question the appropriateness of accepting a valuable gift.  

The principal should let their superintendent know of the gift and check on whether there are district policies regarding acceptance of high-value gifts. The principal could consider giving the tickets to the child’s teacher or other staff who work regularly with the student. Whatever option the principal decides on, it is appropriate that district leadership weigh in on the final decision and the parents are informed.

Sheldon Berman:

The principal should thank the parents for their generous gesture and let them know he can’t accept their gift. The state ethics laws that apply to public employees generally identify it as a conflict of interest to accept gifts valued over a particular dollar amount. It may be permissible in some states to accept an item such as a gift basket valued at less than $25 or $50. 

Because no one person is solely responsible for a student’s success, it would be appropriate to share any gift of this nature with other staff members. In lieu of a personal gift, the principal might suggest that the parents make a gift or donation to the school in their name to benefit the school’s curricular or instructional program. 

Whenever a public employee receives something of value, even if it is not substantial, the specter of a conflict of interest may arise. Though it is unlikely that such a gesture would improperly influence an individual’s future decision making, it could still give the appearance of impropriety by advantaging those who can provide such gifts over those who can’t.

If, as an alternative, the parents presented the principal with a small gift, it would be wise for him to formally disclose the  gift to the superintendent or school board to ensure he is meeting the standards of the conflict of interest law. Disclosure is considered an acceptable way to address a potential conflict of interest. In the long run, it is best to let the parents know that a thank you note would be an ample gesture of appreciation.

Louis Wool:

At its core, this is an issue grounded in the principles of equity and access. Accepting this gift, a heartfelt gesture from these parents, would be unethical, likely illegal, but most importantly would adversely impact other parents. Parents of lesser means could feel diminished and disenfranchised, and its acceptance could even change parent perceptions of the principal. 

For a good reason, most districts have policies limiting the value of gifts a teacher or principal can accept. Whether intended or not, parents who gift extravagantly may expect, even unconsciously, preferential treatment for their child. Gifts would not influence most educators, but acceptance complicates an already complex partnership between principals and parents. 

The principal should not accept the gift. His challenge is to be gracious and maintain his relationship with the parents while modeling inclusive, ethical behaviors for the broader parent community. He might consider asking parents to donate the tickets for a schoolwide auction and use the funds to raise awareness about autism. In every ethical dilemma is the opportunity to model our beliefs.
The Ethical Educator panel consists of Sheldon Berman, AASA lead superintendent, Redmond, Ore.; MaryEllen Elia, senior fellow, International Center for Leadership in Education and retired superintendent; Chris Lee Nicastro, former Missouri commissioner of education and president, Lee Consulting Group, St. Louis, Mo.; and Louis N. Wool, superintendent, Harrison, N.Y.