BOE starts conversation on donor recognition

Donor recognitions are displayed outside of the Design Lab, above, the Fitness Center and on pavers in the courtyard at Scarsdale High School.

When individuals or families make a donation toward a cause or facilities in the community, their generosity may be acknowledged with a plaque or brick with their names on it.

As the school district continues its conversation around the proposed $810,000 Butler Field lights, and the fundraising campaign being launched to finance the project, there’s been a side conversation about whether or not donor recognition should cease to exist in Scarsdale’s public spaces.

At the board of education meeting March 25, board members talked about possibly amending the donor recognition policy and gift policy.

The original proposed change adds that donor recognition related to gifting will be determined by the board of education on a case-by-case basis.

“Significant donations which seek donor recognition will require a memorandum of understanding that outlines the mutual agreement and understanding of the arrangement, noting each party’s requirements and responsibilities, including the scope of donor recognition,” the amendment reads.

This issue first arose last year when the board approved, 6 to 1, preliminary designs March 19 for two separate donor recognition signs to be installed at Scarsdale High School, naming those who contributed funds for building a fitness center and design lab at the school.

The signs list dozens of contributors who supported the capital campaign through the privately run Scarsdale Schools Education Foundation.

The foundation raised $2.25 million for building the two new spaces, about $2 million of which was contributed by Scarsdale residents through leadership gifts and paver purchases. More than 400 people bought stone pavers for the SHS courtyard garden and 65 donors from the community gave large gifts.

But a few residents expressed concerns about the process by which the signs listing donor names was approved. They want to know when the plan for the plaque was approved and where it is written that the board approved of names being listed on the facilities.

Renee Baylor of Sage Terrace said having donor recognition may place importance on the money, rather than community service.

“The decision to display permanently on school property is monetary in nature, indicates to me that the school district places higher value for financial contributions than for community service and non sibi,” she said. Non sibi, Latin for “not for oneself alone,” is the school district’s motto.

Claremont Road resident Harriet Sobol said if the district needed lights for Butler Field, it should have included funding for the project in the school budget. Now that there’s been a push for fundraising, the issue of donor recognition has been raised.

“It’s a moment for all of us to stop and think,” she said. “Do we want schools to be a repository of pavers, plaques and signs with people’s names on them?”

Sobol said there could be some divisiveness in the schools due to donor recognition if one student’s family name is displayed while another student’s name is not.

For that, she said the recognition should go to the fundraising organization as opposed to individual donors.

Scarsdale High School junior Andrew Morin said there are already names in the school that recognize alumni and veterans for service, achievement and accomplishment, but that’s different from donating money.

“A lot of that can be felt at school, because [the names] are visible,” he said. “You can count how many names are those of your peers. The district should accept the money charitably and not give them permanent recognition that leads to long-term problems.”

Edgewood Road resident Mary Beth Evans supported Morin’s statement, and encouraged the board to hear from other students on the matter.

“If there is any indication or chance that individual donor recognition signage does serve to highlight or distinguish one student from another, based on parental ability to pay, I would urge the board to not permit this practice any further than already allowed,” she said. “If our public schools are just to serve all students equally, our public school buildings and other property cannot serve to reinforce differences and disparities that may exist outside of school.”

Kate Conlan, co-president of Maroon and White, the school athletics booster organization, had a different opinion. She said while she hasn’t heard that people’s likelihood of donating is contingent on donor recognition, she doesn’t believe a student would feel left out if their family didn’t have a paver, or if their names were on a plaque.

“I think it’s a tasteful way to say thank you,” she said.

The board discussed the possible amendment and looked at both sides of the issue.

Board member Alison Singer said it’s critical to approach the issue from the standpoint of students and to try to prevent a situation where some students are made to feel they are the haves and the others are have nots.

“I appreciate that naming rights are now part of our world,” she said. “But I don’t think they belong in the world of public schools. Nor do I think a public school should codify an expression of income inequality via these policies, particularly a public school.”

Singer said she agrees with and supports the idea of preserving as much flexibility with regard to accepting gifts as possible, but suggested the school district should recognize organized community groups, rather than individuals.

She went on to say she’s not looking to control how Maroon and White and other fundraising organizations thank donors, but said she’s focused on how it can affect a public school.

Fellow board member Nina Cannon said that in her view there’s a place for “appropriate and peaceful” recognition of donors, and it should be handled on a case-by-case basis. The district has been tasteful in recognizing the donors that have taken part in past fundraising opportunities, she said.

Board member Bill Natbony said the board has to explore all avenues of recognition, whether the donations come from individuals, major corporations or an organization in the village, if the board decides to change the policy. He said he’s a bit hesitant to put a stop to donor recognition if it thwarts any fundraising efforts, and he said he wants to hear from fundraising organizations on the matter.

“I worry about the potential disincentives,” he said. “I’m leaning toward allowing individual recognition in a reasonable and coherent way, on a case-by-case basis.”

League of Women Voters of Scarsdale co-president Linda Doucette-Ashman said these conversations should be as open and transparent to the community as possible.

She said the league recommends ample time for community input.

So far, the league has not taken an official position on whether or not individual donors should be recognized for their donations to the school district, or the pros and cons on the matter.

The naming rights issue is expected to be revisited at the next school board meeting, April 8.

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