Superintendent apologizes for fundraising policy 'ruckus'
Thorndike — After several members of the public spoke at a Board of Directors meeting about concerns over a new draft Regional School Unit 3 fundraising policy, Superintendent Paul Austin apologized for his earlier statements that outside groups might not be able to raise funds at the school, and gave an update on the policy's status.
The draft fundraising policy, which had a first reading at the Feb. 27 board meeting, would limit student fundraising to student organizations, nonprofit organizations, parent-teacher organizations, and projects that benefit the school or student organizations.
Austin’s statement to some community members that, under the new policy, non-school-affiliated groups might not be permitted to raise funds at the school, was spread over social media and led to strong community backlash.
Four people spoke in opposition to the new policy during a public comment period at the April 10 RSU 3 board meeting. Chuck Penny of Waldo said the draft policy was vague regarding outside organizations. Penny said he would like to see language stating activities of non-school-affiliated organizations that “do phenomenal things for the school” would not be affected. He also urged the policy committee to allow public comment at the meeting at which the fundraising policy is discussed.
Amy Brown of Unity spoke against prohibiting fundraising that benefits individual students. She gave examples of student-organized benefits for individual students for educational, athletic or medical causes. A “Hat-Day” fundraiser that raised $400 for a student with leukemia taught the students compassion, she said.
She also urged the board to keep the Mount View High School building open to community benefits "to show off the beautiful building." She said that while she was open to some changes, such as charging a fee or requiring liability waivers, she did not want people to have to go as far away as Belfast to hold a community benefit dinner because there is not a large-enough place nearby.
In these fundraisers, Brown said, “people from 5 years old to 90 years old come together to raise money, whether it be for a for a youth sport, a family that had a fire, someone with cancer, a 4-H program, or even for things that don’t benefit someone directly, but teaches students something, like the autism awareness or humane society benefits. I hope we don’t eliminate the compassion we are able to teach our kids.”
During his superintendent's report, Austin explained the impetus for the policy review. The current policy, established in 1986, requires principal and superintendent approval for any fundraising activities at the school. Because this policy was not being followed, he said, the board took it up for review in fall 2016. Further, the policy was established before construction of the new building and rules apply to a school building that is federally funded, he said. As with all policies that are being updated, a sample policy was obtained from Maine School Management Association.
Austin said he consulted the school district’s attorney, Drummond Woodsum in Portland, about the policy, who told him that for tax-related, constitutional and liability reasons, the school should not allow outside organizations to use the school for fundraising. This could also affect another policy, "Community use of school facilities," which lists the priority of use for different categories of users. The priority of users are: first, RSU 3 school programs and organizations; second, municipal organizations within RSU 3; third, nonprofit organizations located within RSU 3; fourth, nonprofit organizations; and fifth, “all other individuals and organizations.”
To illustrate the constitutional issues of allowing that fifth category of users, Austin gave the hypothetical example of a community member who had committed a "heinous" crime and sought to hold a benefit dinner at the school to raise money for his legal fees. If the school allowed one outside group to use the building, it would have to allow any group to use it.
“I can’t say ‘no’ because constitutionally, it becomes an issue of discrimination, because we use federal funds to fund this building,” he said. “As long as you are a nonprofit, that’s not an issue. It’s that number five category. If we allow this, we have to allow everybody else.”
He said he has been in conversation with the attorneys about possible solutions, and is confident the Policy Committee will be able to find one that allows “things to continue just the way they are.” This is likely to be accomplished through changes to both policies regulating student fundraising and community use of school facilities.
Austin said his earlier statement about not allowing outside groups to fundraise was "verbatim" what he had been told by the attorney.
“I anticipated that if the attorney said don’t do it, the board wouldn’t do it,” he said. “It was not meant to raise a ruckus. It was not meant to target this or that organization.”
More than 160 outside organizations had used the facilities this school year, he said, adding that he did not mean his statements as an attack on the district’s history.
"You guys have brought up some really big issues," Austin said. "Nobody wants wrestling or basketball not to be here."
The proposed new policy will be discussed Tuesday, May 9, at a Policy Committee meeting at 6 p.m. in the Central Office conference room. The meeting will be open to the public.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misstated that RSU 3's attorney told the superintendant that outside groups should not be permitted to use school facilities. What the attorney actually said was that no outside groups should be allowed to use school facilities for fundraising.
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Jordan Bailey has been working for The Republican Journal since 2013. She studied philosophy at Boston College and has experience in marine science education and journalism. She lives in Belfast.
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