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School Board in Virginia Approves Teacher Gift Limit

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The Arlington County School Board voted unanimously to amend its gift-giving policy to provide school employees with clearer guidelines when it came to accepting gifts.

Frank Bellavia, a school district spokesman, said the changes were made as part of a routine review of the 23,000-student system's policies. The board had originally considered a $50 cap on gifts to a school district employee per family each year, but after meeting with local representatives from principals' groups and Parent Teacher Associations the limit was raised to $100, Bellavia said. The revised policy, which was approved Dec. 19, also draws distinctions from awards that staff members may receive from outside groups, he added.

The Washington Post reported that other Washington, D.C.-area districts like Montgomery County, Md., sets a $100 cap per family per calendar year, while Fairfax County, Va., discourages gift giving. In Massachusetts, ethic laws cap annual spending on teacher gifts at $50 per family. In 2011, Alabama passed a statewide gifts ban for all public employees, but lawmakers amended the law so that teachers could receive gifts of up to $25.

"In life, everything is not equal, but there should be boundaries for what we operate within," board member James Lander told The Post on Dec. 19. Lander said discussions about which Parent Teacher Associations had purchased smart boards or iPads for classroom use or the latest extravagant gift a teacher had received abound in a county where the median income hovers around $100,000.

But with pockets of extreme poverty in the Virginia district, there were some concerns that a policy was necessary to decrease the inherent differences between wealthy and poor schools. Still, the Arlington Education Association, which opposed an early version of the gift policy, told The Post that it was unnecessary.

"Educators are ethical people that make ethical decisions daily on lots of topics, and we know the difference between receiving a bribe and receiving a gift out of appreciation," said Jaim Foster, the association's president.

Linda Forehand, a prekindergarten special education teacher who has spent her career in higher-poverty schools, said: "In my 27 years of teaching, the largest gift I ever got was a $25 gift card for Borders. I usually get mugs and plastic Jesuses." Forehand noted in the article that $5 or $10 could represent a "huge sacrifice" for some of her students' families.

But there are Arlington schools where teachers do receive more gift cards or gift cards worth hundreds of dollars, often when parents pool their resources.

As a room parent for one of my son's classes, I was charged with the task of pooling parents' money to buy gift cards for the teacher and teaching assistant. Not everyone donated, and no gave more than $30, which was divided between the teachers—so we met Arlington's cap. 

This gift-giving effort has two benefits: It saves time-crunched parents from having to hustle and buy a last-minute gift for their child's teacher. It also guarantees that the teacher doesn't get an assortment of 28 mugs, scented candles, ornaments, or chocolates. Instead, each teacher in my son's class received a gift card for their favorite store and a nice note of appreciation.

But Arlington's gift-giving limit did give me pause as I wrapped up my sons' teachers' gifts last month until I recognized why I give teachers presents. Teachers deserve my unending gratitude for inspiring and educating my boys every day. That's it.

Still, I know what my son's teacher would really like for Christmas—for her 28 students to finish their January math packet over the holiday break, 24 days ahead of schedule. (Not to brag, but my son has one page left to complete.)

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