Ethical Educator

A Gift Too Generous?
School Administrator, September 2022

Scenario: A medium-size school district with a limited administrative staff has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. The superintendent had to lay off one administrator in mid-summer for budgetary reasons and another contracts the virus with serious symptoms as the school year begins, leaving the rest to shoulder the added burden of covering the work. Salaries have been frozen for several years so at holiday time, the superintendent gives cash gifts of $200 to each of his six direct reports to express his deep appreciation. The money comes from his own pocket, but are these gifts appropriate?

Roark Horn: 

Unless there is something in state code or school district policy that prevents the superintendent from such displays of generosity, these gifts probably are not inappropriate per se. On the other hand, just because he can do something, should he? 

The superintendent’s actions could lead to a series of unintended consequences. He is drawing a line in gifting his direct reports, but he almost certainly interacts with other staff on a regular basis as well. Because no one has come through this pandemic unscathed, will staff who did not receive money feel slighted? Having received the gift, would his direct reports then feel compelled to take similar action with the people who report to them? 

Also, how will his school board react when the members find out? Will they see this as an effort by him to undermine their decision to freeze salaries? 
Although it’s doubtful any kind of violation has occurred, the superintendent should be coached to think of other ways to express his appreciation that do not invite these kinds of unintended consequences.
Chris Nicastro:

There is no question that many teachers and administrators were called upon to assume extra duties during the pandemic.  The superintendent is well-intentioned in his generosity and the fact that the money came from his own pocket would seem to remove any question of impropriety or special treatment.  

Nevertheless, any time a staff member, especially an administrator, receives additional money, it comes under significant scrutiny and creates an atmosphere of mistrust. The superintendent might be better served to invite his staff to his home for a special dinner or recognize their service in some non-monetary manner to avoid conflict.  
Maria G. Ott:

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on administrators is historic, impacting employee well-being and reducing and freezing budgets. From central office to every classroom, working conditions have stretched everyone’s capacity. The superintendent sees the hardship and has few options to lift the burden. 

So how does a superintendent show appreciation for those who have done the heavy lifting to open and keep open schools and services?  It might seem like a wonderful act of generosity and appreciation to give direct reports a cash gift of $200 at holiday time. However, the size of the cash gift could make the six direct reports feel uncomfortable and indebted to the superintendent.  

This act of generosity actually may raise questions about the source of the funds. Although the superintendent is funding the gift out of his own pocket, how do employees know this is true? Could someone perceive that the funds are actually coming from the district? Is there a cash fund? Are there funds that are outside monitored accounts? In addition, if the six direct reports are subject to public reporting of gifts, these individuals could be required by law to report the $200 for transparency.  

The superintendent is in a supervisory/employer capacity with the direct reports, and the cash gift may make the recipients uncomfortable. Direct reports are important to the superintendent’s team as they should challenge the leader to consider diverse perspectives on problems facing the district. Will the gift make the reports uncomfortable in bringing up difficult topics? Will they need to report the gift? Does the district have a gift policy that requires employees to report gifts of a certain amount?  Does the policy prohibit employees from accepting cash gifts?

A key question is how do the recipients of the cash gift view the gesture? Does it make individuals uncomfortable and beholden to the superintendent? In an organization subject to public scrutiny, does receiving cash feel like undue influence over an employee? Although the superintendent is genuine in wanting to acknowledge the hard work of the team, it would be best to find another way to recognize them. Some superintendents will host a lunch for their team that they may actually prepare, such as a barbeque or meal catered by the district’s food services staff. Words of appreciation shared with the team during this type of event can build the positive culture and climate of appreciation that keeps these leaders committed to the district’s vision/mission and its superintendent.

Avoid large gifts of cash to employees and avoid misperceptions about intent or potential conflicts of interest.  As superintendent, you model the values of the organization and abide by the policies that govern gifts. The best advice would be to express appreciation in a way that leaves everyone feeling valued for their hard work and sacrifice, yet not uncomfortable with an unexpected gift of excessive value. Words of appreciation are far more important than a gift of cash that comes as one-time money that may appear to have strings attached. Check your policies to see if gift guidelines are clearly defined to ensure that your employees know what is acceptable in your district.  Clarity of expectation contributes to a culture of high ethical standards.


Sheldon Berman:

The superintendent’s desire to express his gratitude to his direct reports is admirable, but his method of doing so is inappropriate and problematic. As with any substantial gift offered by a parent, vendor or staff member, accepting a cash gift from the superintendent likely places his direct reports in the awkward position of violating their state’s conflict of interest law. In general, individuals in public employment may not accept monetary gifts or gifts that exceed a certain value for work they are already paid to perform. 

In addition, his action sets a problematic precedent. Would his direct reports feel they are expected to provide similar gifts to their likewise deserving direct reports? Would the school board deem his gesture insulting or undermining, given that they have not consented to any accommodations in salary? The responsibility for financially recognizing employee contributions belongs to the school board, which can take official action to provide salary increases or bonuses if contracts and policies allow. 

One way to examine the ethics of this gesture is to consider whether it would be acceptable if everyone knew about it—and the answer would probably be no. To express his appreciation, this well-intentioned superintendent would be on sounder footing to write a personal note to each direct report and/or to place letters in their personnel files acknowledging them for going above and beyond in this challenging time. 
The Ethical Educator panel consists of SHELDON H. BERMAN, AASA lead superintendent, Redmond, Ore.; ROARK HORN, the Pomerantz endowed professor in educational excellence, University of Northern Iowa; CHRIS NICASTRO, former Missouri commissioner of education; and MARIA G. OTT, Irving R. and Virginia A. Melbo chair in educational administration, Rossier School of Education, University of Southern California.