IPJ has obtained a series of emails that show a school Superintendent in Alabama soliciting donations from staff and students to a specific charity in exchange for “early release” from school on multiple school days.
Donate to ‘this’ charity, and you’ll get to go home early!
“It just doesn’t feel right for our boss to be offering to let us go home early if we pay a certain charity some money.”
The emails were obtained from a source within Baldwin County Public Schools and are dated November 2017. The emails were sent from Baldwin County Board of Education (BCBE) to all teachers and staff within their school district.
The email thread begins with Marina Simpson, Executive Director of the United Way of Baldwin County, Inc. (UWBC) pressing Tyler for more donations.
In a November 27 email to Superintendent Tyler, Marina Simpson says:
“Unfortunately, the campaign dropped this year to 78,448.92… this number includes a combination payroll deduction, one-time donations made by BCBE employees, and any student campaigns that were held (we only have a few schools that do student campaigns).”
Two days later, on November 29, Superintendent Tyler sent an email to teachers and staff soliciting donations, and incentivizing contributions with early release from school:
“we value our continuing partnership with Marina Simpson …. If our contributions meet or exceed $90K, the system will release students at 11:30 and ALL teachers at 1:00 the Friday before Christmas holidays 12/15/2017. If we as a system reach or exceed $100K, we will have a second early release day the Friday before Mardi Gras.”
A current teacher employed by Baldwin County Public Schools, who wishes to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation from the school system, told IPJ that the email from the Superintendent made some teachers feel “pressured” to donate portions of their wages to this specific charity.
The teacher went on to explain: “It just doesn’t feel right for our boss to be offering to let us go home early if we pay a certain charity some money. Our salaries are public dollars, and are not even his money to be trading for donations like that.”
Pressure from above:
“We’re pressured until we finally just do it to get them off our backs,”
A former Baldwin County Public School administrator explained that incentivizing early release with money donations creates an internal pressure to donate. The source told IPJ:
“It creates the attitude of ‘I donated, why didn’t you donate?’ within the school system, leading to a ‘you’re ruining early release for the rest of us’ type of pressure that just isn’t right to put on teachers who, as it is, end-up paying for school supplies out of their own pockets half the time, and are underpaid for what they do in the first place.”
Superintendent Eddie Tyler, whose salary was $160,000 this school year has just received a 21.9% raise from BCBE and will make $195,000/year, for the next 3-years. Tyler’s raise amount of $35,000 is almost as much as the starting salaries of teachers in his district.
A teacher told IPJ that BCBE officials place pledge cards and donation information in their mailboxes, and if staff don’t fill it out, then they are treated differently. “We’re pressured until we finally just do it to get them off our backs,” said a teacher.
Sources also report that when teachers have not donated or filled-out their pledge cards for UWBC in the past, school officials have allowed a UWBC representative named Lana Mummah to come into the school and talk those teachers into donating.
Lana Mummah is married to Ken Mummah, who is a former administrator at a Baldwin County Public School.
If the Superintendent is soliciting donations in exchange for early-release, and teacher’s who don’t donate are being visited (in-person, at work) by an administrator’s wife who is (even slightly) pressuring them to donate, then it is conceivable that employees would feel obliged to make such a donation.
Sources have also expressed concern that their contributions to UWBC (or lack thereof) might somehow affect their opportunities to make tenure or get a promotion.
Other school districts say…
Most school districts raise money for their own “foundation” or for the PTO/PTA within the schools themselves. Some schools partner with outside agencies and offer teachers the option to enroll in a direct payroll deduction if they choose to donate.
However, officials from school districts across the US consistently reported that they would “never” incentivize donations with early-release, many referring to this practice as an “inappropriate use of public funds.” Officials also stated that they would “never” pressure teachers to make monetary donations under any circumstances.
“that sounds really shady. I can tell you for a fact that those would not be the practices of [our] school district,”
When an IPJ investigator read the email from Superintendent Tyler verbatim to officials at various school districts (in and outside of Alabama), specifically asking about the quid pro quo between money donations and early-release, this is what officials had to say:
An official at a school district in Texas said, “I’m not sure if that’s legal, but it certainly doesn’t sound ethical,” and “I can’t see us ever do something like that.”
A school district official in Washington laughed when the email was read over the phone, and said, “so he’s basically bribing them with early release” then stated, “there’s no way that would fly here.” The official described it as “gifting public funds” and said that doing such a thing in Washington would probably be illegal.
An official at a school district in California said they could not envision their own school district ever giving early release away as an incentive to staff or students for any reason, let alone tying it to monetary donations to a charity. “It would never be something we would do,” the official said.
The official went on to say about his own district, “You can’t use employee time like that, public dollars that goes towards, you know, the time somebody’s at work. Those are contractual hours.” The official went on to suggest that the content’s of Tyler’s email may potentially be an inappropriate use of public funds, and concluded, “I would be disappointed if I ever heard of something like this happening at my school district – more than disappointed!”
An official at a school district in Georgia referred to Tyler’s email as “pretty stinky” and said that it is not something they would ever do in their own school district.
“If my superintendent came to me and said ‘what do you think about this?’ I would say, ‘don’t do it.’ That would be my advice to my superintendent if I were asked that question here in Alabama.”
An official at a school district in Arizona said their district “would never do that.” The official also expressed that there would probably be Federal and State regulations preventing that type of “misuse of public funds.”
An official at a different school district in Arizona said they have never heard of such a thing happening before, and that they would feel “uncomfortable to say the least” if something like that was occurring in their own school district, adding, “I’m not recalling anytime that we have ever done that, for any reason,” and, “we would never do that here.”
An official at a school district in Oregon chuckled and said, “that sounds really shady. I can tell you for a fact that those would not be the practices of [our] school district,” adding, “we are a public entity.” Another official said that “early release is only used for teacher collaboration time,” and that it was never something that was incentivized in the past, adding, “We would likely not engage in such activity.”
An official at a school district in Alabama described the act of trading money donations to a charity for early release as “likely illegal.” The source later stated that they could not definitively say that the actions were illegal, but added, “I don’t know how smart it is.”
The Alabama official went on to say, “We don’t do early release. We don’t do jeans day. The only perk, if there is any, is that they can donate with a direct payroll deduction. Otherwise, there’s no benefit but a tax write-off, and you get to feel warm and fuzzy.”
“If my superintendent came to me and said ‘what do you think about this?’ I would say, ‘don’t do it.’ That would be my advice to my superintendent if I were asked that question here in Alabama.” The official reiterated, “In the state of Alabama, I would not recommend my superintendent do that for my school system.”
IPJ has not spoken to a single official in any school district (inside or outside of Alabama) that would recommend the quid pro quo displayed in Superintendent Tyler’s emails. In fact, every school district official interviewed by IPJ had the same impression of Tyler’s emails, referring to them as either illegal, unethical, or both.
Despite the perspective of other school districts, Superintendent Tyler and BCBE appear to engage in this practice pretty casually and aggressively.
On December 6th, another email was sent to all staff:
“Time is running out. To make a decision about the early release, giving will be tallied at the end of the school day this coming Friday.”
In all, IPJ obtained 4 emails sent within a 1-month period. The emails were sent from either Tyler himself, or from the school district. The emails were sent to all teachers and staff, and included direct donation solicitations. Each email referenced the Superintendent’s “commitment” to his promise of letting students and staff get early release “if” they reached their UWBC contribution goal.
On December 8th, when Tyler decided to give students and staff early release, he said:
“Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year with my Christmas present of an EARLY RELEASE on Friday December 15th!!”
Tyler’s email shows him representing early release as a his gift to staff and students – a “present” that he is bestowing.
A source told IPJ, “What did he say? MY Christmas present? Pretty sure that he can’t give time-off at a public school as a gift just because people contributed to a certain charity. These are public funds we’re talking about here.” The source went on to say that the email amounted to “trading time-off for donations.”
It’s been going on for a while…
According to IPJ’s investigation, this practice of trading donations for early release has been in-place for at least a couple of years.
In a video posted November 2016, Marina Simpson informs teachers and students that their contributions exceeded the goal of $75,000, then Tyler announces early release to students:
As Tyler did in his November 2017 emails, he originally promises an early release at 1pm (instead of the normal release time of around 3pm) if contribution goals are met.
In the video from 2016 though, Tyler goes even further. Since contributions exceeded the goal that year, Tyler says: “Because you exceeded the $75,000 amount, I’m not going to let you get off at 1 o’clock, I’m going to let everybody go at 12:30.”
There is an unmistakable pattern of connections between the amount of monetary donations teachers and students give to UWBC and the amount of time teachers and students receive in “early release” from Baldwin County Public Schools.
An Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) official told IPJ, “I’ve never heard of a situation like this.” The official said that schools may close early for inclement weather, but that the official has never heard of it happening as a quid pro quo for the monetary gain of a third-party. The official told IPJ that, “It’s a fair question,” adding, “there’s also the issue of classroom to seat time, subject time lost in any particular classroom. I would think that would be just as much of a concerns as the monetary issue.”
ALSDE was not immediately able to answer specific questions regarding the legality or ethics of the quid pro quo relationship between donations to a charity and early-release from school, but a spokesman said that their legal department is looking into it.
A spokesperson for the Alabama Ethics Commission (AEC) said they would also be looking into whether a quid pro quo relationship between charity donations and early-release would amount to an ethics violation.
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