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Ethics Commission limits gift choices for teachers

Christmas gifts to teachers have come under scrutiny from the state Ethics Commission.

The ethics law, revised earlier this year, prohibits public officials and public employees, which includes teachers, from receiving most holiday gifts of any value. No legal distinction exists between a teacher and legislator under the ethics law, Superintendent Dr. Dee Fowler said.

The Ethics Commission’s announcement on Dec. 7 stated a teacher’s gift “may not be given for any corrupt purpose,” and “the gift has to be ‘de minimis’ in value.” “De minimis” value “neither has significant intrinsic value nor the possibility of being sold for profit,” Fowler said.

The commission opinion stated that teachers cannot receive gifts like hams, turkeys and gift cards with monetary value.

However, teachers can receive gifts, such as fruit baskets, homemade cookies, Christmas ornaments of little value, coffee mugs with candy, notebooks, school supplies, compact discs and low-cost books.

“The commission did note that the school or teacher may receive gift cards specifically for use on items needed in the classroom at any time during the year — but not for personal use,” Fowler said.

Another Ethics Commission ruling concerns “collective gifts,” or collecting small amounts from several individuals that are combined for a more substantial gift to the teacher. However, the local school system must have a policy that defines guidelines for a collective gift.

“As a school system, we had no way of knowing … that collective gifts may be allowed if given in compliance with a board policy,” Fowler said. Fowler has asked school board attorney Woody Sanderson to present a policy to the board for consideration.

“However, we will not have enough time to have a policy in place for this holiday season,” Fowler said. “So, unfortunately, collective gift cards cannot be given to our teachers this year.”

“We must be vigilant to avoid putting any of our teachers at risk of violation of this law,” Fowler said.

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