Community News Schools __Featured Slider — 15 January 2013
School board members grill superintendent on Education Foundation

By Melissa Quinn

Sparks flew at last week’s school board meeting after new member Patricia Hennig pressed Superintendent Morton Sherman for information about the Alexandria City Public Schools Education Foundation.

Hennig questioned the nonprofit’s use of the district’s name — as well as space and personnel — without board oversight. Sherman, former school board chairwoman Sheryl Gorsuch and Deputy Superintendent Madye Henson formed the group, which received a 501(c)(3) status in 2011, to raise money for unfunded projects about two years ago.

Henson remains its registered agent while the district’s North Beauregard Street headquarters is listed as its address, according to paperwork filed with the Virginia State Corporation Commission.

“If you’re going to use the school district’s name, you better have board permission,” Hennig told Sherman.

School board chairwoman Karen Graf described — based on her independent research — the foundation as community-driven, able to operate based on resident support and donations as opposed to taxpayer dollars.

But Hennig argued its use of the ACPS name and address suggested ties to the school district. She also worried the foundation drew from taxpayer dollars through use of district staff’s time and city facilities.

“We have no business allowing any of this without it being accounted for,” Hennig told her fellow board members.

Sherman has adamantly supported the creation of an independent foundation since his arrival at ACPS, though its incorporation in 2011 was the first step in his vision.

“Imagine that over the next couple of years … a separate board — away from the funding you might provide through an ACPS budget — would support the dreams of teachers,” Sherman said. “It would be able to give them a voice and reality.”

However, the foundation has yet to provide funding for projects, and board members worry it will compete with the Scholarship Fund of Alexandria.

“There is no intent to compete with the scholarship group – that doesn’t mean you won’t compete with what they’ve done,” said board member Bill Campbell.

Members of the nonprofit’s founding board have discussed potential projects with teachers and students. Sherman believes the group needs six to nine months to “get their feet on the ground.”

Though the foundation remains outside of the school board’s jurisdiction, Graf — at Hennig’s request — asked for more information about the nonprofit, including its tax forms as well as a breakdown of revenues and expenses. Sherman will return to the board with the requested information January 24.

In the future, the two groups hope to define the relationship between ACPS and the foundation.

“I’m very hopeful that … we can get all questions answered,” Campbell, who originally supported the foundation, said. “I would hate to think we’re … going to be held hostage on this for the next six to nine months while folks figure out what to do.”

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(2) Readers Comments

  1. I respect Ms. Henning’s right to question the foundation, but in my experience as a school board member elsewhere, some of her questions (and certainly her tone as communicated in the article) are inappropriate. County school foundations all have characteristics in common with what is described in the article, particularly as they are first being established. Further, some of the oversight she is seeking would be a conflict of interest for her as a school board member. While I’m sure she wants to “make a splash” as a new school board member, I’d suggest that she chose the wrong subject matter as the basis of her impact. I suspect that in a few months, she will look back upon these comments and realize that 1)she should have made inquiries outside of the public forum, 2)the tone of her comments was inappropriate and potentially damaging to the relationship with her superintendent, staff and the foundation, and 3)finding out more about how these types of relationships between divisions and their foundations would have saved time in the meeting while minimizing the potential for handicapping the foundation’s fundraising efforts going forward.

    She made a splash alright, the question is who is left “all wet” in the end.

  2. Asking questions about this vague foundation is the responsibility of the new school board. The Superintendent is an employee working for the school board, running a questionable foundation from within school system property, utilizing school system communications, involving school system employees, invoking the name of the school system. As such there are serious questions regarding the potential use of public funds. The board, not just one member, raised questions and sought answers from the Superintendent who is listed as a director of the foundation. In response to the board’s questioning, the Superintendent explained that someone else would have to address the specifics of the foundation in 6-9 months time. This, over a year after the foundation was incorporated. Any belief that such a response is common practice or justifiable is what citizens should deem inappropriate. Raising questions within public discussions concerning a foundation which uses public space and public resources while purporting to support a public school system is the responsibility of these public employees. To suggest that questions regarding public interest should be asked behind closed doors is inappropriate. This is not how a school board should operate and thankfully this board recognizes that shameful practice and is acting in an appropriate manner. Inquiries and answers should continue to be made public, the tone of questioning should meet the seriousness of the situation, and foundations working with the school division should have a clear purpose agreed to by the school board. There are numerous foundations and organizations working closely with the school system to benefit the needs of Alexandria’s schools. Their fundraising efforts and success have not been handicapped by any expectation of openness and clarity. The same should be expected of this foundation. If not, we all end up wet in the end.

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