Following the recent controversy surrounding last year’s approval of an anonymous $1.3 million donation to Addison Elementary School, the Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) Board of Education approved of a proposal in a 3-2 vote, regarding the transparency of unidentified donors.
While many parents commended the generous gift, which covered the pre-construction cost of the school’s renovation, the donation also raised eyebrows over the unidentified donor.
Under the proposed administrative regulation, a person who donates over $50,000 must disclose their identity to the Superintendent, who then can inform Board members, even if the donor wishes to remain anonymous to the community.
Along with recently-elected President Ken Dauber and Vice President Jennifer DiBrienza, board member Terry Godfrey voted in favor of the proposition.
“The question is, even if a donor wants to be publicly anonymous, do we have some obligation internally to know who that donor is?” Godfrey said. “I think that somebody in the building should know, the most senior people in the building, the people who represent the community.”
Board members Todd Collins and Melissa Baten Caswell were opposed to the proposition. Collins said the proposition would work in a private institution, as Stanford University currently has a similar policy, but not a public institution, as the donor’s identity would need to be revealed in an open session. Collins also viewed the proposal as an elusion of the Brown Act, which guarantees public access to meetings of local legislative bodies and also prohibits board members from holding District-related discussions outside the public meetings.
“It’s vital that senior people in the District be aware of who is donating significant funds to the district, [which] makes perfect sense in a private institution, but we’re a public agency governed by the Brown Act,” Collins said. “What’s proposed is that the Superintendent has to retain the identity of the donor and inform the Board in confidence, [but] there is no closed session exception for this information — [the Superintendent] would [need to] whisper it to each of us.”
DiBrienza disagreed with Collins’ claim, as she didn’t think the proposal would be avoiding the Brown Act.
“It’s important that someone in the organization knows where this money’s coming from,” DiBrienza said. “This makes the organization more accountable for the donations we accept. I don’t think of it as a work around the Brown Act; I think it’s actually making us more transparent that members of the organization know who the donation is from.”
Similar to Mr. Collins, Caswell felt uncomfortable with the Superintendent knowing the identity of the donor without publicly releasing the information. She expressed her support for working with a vetted donor-advised fund, which would protect the donor’s identity.
“There could be a potential conflict of interest that we don’t understand,” Baswell said. “The donor advised-fund is less problematic because then we aren’t beholden to whoever it is, but if we do know who it is, I think it’s impossible not to feel somewhat beholden to someone who gives a large gift.”
Gunn Student Board Representative Advait Arun also expressed his dissent for the proposal while Richy Islas remained neutral on the issue.
The Addison Principal Amanda Boyce requested that the identity of the Addison project’s donor be kept a secret, as the donation was made before the approval of the policy.