By Melissa Quinn
Alexandria City Public Schools officials insist they formed an educational foundation with the full backing of the former school board even as current members are calling on an outside legal expert to review the organization’s creation.
The Alexandria City Public Schools Education Foundation, which was incorporated in 2011, came under scrutiny at a board meeting last month. Members questioned whether the nonprofit required board oversight and worried that it had inappropriately drawn on district recourses.
After Superintendent Morton Sherman provided documents on the foundation’s formation, including financial records and bylaws, board members opted to turn to outside counsel for help understanding the information. Deputy Superintendent Madye Henson — the nonprofit’s co-founder — believes the review will put the foundation in the clear.
“From the perspective of: were all steps identified, outlined and followed? We feel that it was done appropriately,” Henson said.
Documents from the state and Internal Revenue Service, show the nonprofit’s founding members — including Sherman, Henson and former school board chairwoman Sheryl Gorsuch — created the foundation in accordance with state law.
School board members, led by newcomer Patricia Hennig, initially argued the foundation required board oversight because of its use of the district’s name and facilities. But Sherman insisted he received permission to use both from the previous school board at its a September 2011 retreat — a claim Henson reinforces.
“It was very purposefully put in [the agenda] so that the school board could ask questions and be aware of what was happening,” Henson said. “Everybody was excited at the retreat about the possibility of what this could do in Alexandria. Clearly, if at the retreat the board was not in favor, there would never have been a step to move forward with that process.”
There are no publically available meeting minutes from that two-day retreat nor is there a tape of the discussion. All members of that board, including current board members Marc Williams and Ronnie Campbell, either declined to comment or failed to return multiple phone calls. Williams and Campbell also have not publicly discussed their role in that decision.
According to the National School Board Associations’ Leadership Insider publication, forming an education foundation requires filing forms with the IRS to receive an Employer Identification Number and receive tax-exempt nonprofit status — steps followed by Sherman, Henson and Gorsuch.
“Once you establish all that and you meet all the requirements, you’re up and running,” said Richard Frisch, executive director of the Foundation for Fairfax County Public Schools. “Nothing needs to be done to satisfy guidelines set forth by the school district as far as I know.”
The nonprofit’s founders would likely not need school board approval to create the organization, he said.
Foundations can either fall under the jurisdiction of the school board or — as in the case of the ACPS Education Foundation — act as an independent, community-based entity.
Henson was surprised at the nonprofit’s suddenly controversial status and disappointed at the way the board handled the issue.
“I never had a conversation with any board members about the foundation,” Henson said. “It was much of a shock as the new board came on that we started getting these questions.”
She met with the legal counsel hired by the school board earlier this week to discuss the nonprofit.
“I think communication is the key to this,” Henson said. “There were questions and allegations without sitting down to get the facts. There are no secrets surrounding any of this. There’s nothing to hide.”
Henson, Sherman and Gorsuch created the foundation to pay for projects not covered by the district’s operating budget. There are more than 4,000 educational foundations throughout the country, including in nearby Fairfax and Loudoun counties.
Though school board chairwoman Karen Graf has pledged to release their findings to the public in the coming weeks, discussion of the foundation is not on tonight’s meeting agenda.