GARDINER — School board members in Maine School Administrative District 11 are returning $250 gift cards they received in a recent $94,000 purchase that sent the cards to every staff member during vacations.
The 12-member board of directors were told this week by Superintendent Patricia Hopkins that they could not legally accept gift cards. District administration sent the cards to 364 staff members to appease unions with MSAD 11 who had demanded more pay and contract changes amid staffing constraints brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The gift card purchases, which were not publicly announced or discussed at board meetings, drew criticism from at least one district resident, who emailed school officials to wonder if it was an appropriate expense. The district provided a statement on the gift cards when the Kennebec Journal inquired about them this week.
The purchase amounted to $94,000 and staff received a prepaid Hannaford, Amazon, Walmart or VISA gift card before leaving for winter break on December 22.
Hopkins said the money for the cards was “within the regular budget that district voters approved in the district budget meeting and ratified in the budget validation referendum.” She said there was extra money in the budget to make the purchase from the “deferral due to positions that could not be filled as well as unexpected COVID-19 relief funds.”
“The purchase of these gift cards was from funds only available due to staffing shortages caused by the pandemic and reflects the district’s efforts to support our staff and alleviate the work stress they now face on a daily basis,” said Hopkins.
According to district council policy, only its chairwoman, Becky Fles, can act as a spokesperson if individual council members receive questions. Fles declined to comment, instead saying the district’s statement was made on behalf of the entire board and Hopkins.
The $250 gift cards are part of a memorandum of understanding, also known as a memorandum of understanding, between unions in the district for the 2021-2022 school year. The agreement, which runs until June 23, also allows staff to have access to their sick leave at the start of the year, and not by accumulation, and gives additional leave for circumstances related to COVID-19.
The Memorandum of Understanding is between the MSAD 11 Council, the Gardiner Teacher’s Association, the MSAD 11 Custodian MEA, the District Bus Drivers, the Educational Techniques and Administrative Assistant MEA, and the Non-Instructional Education Association. The unions came to the board in November to ask for negotiations on their contract.
Hopkins said the district council gave him approval to bargain on behalf of the unions, working with the district attorney. Hopkins said in a statement that the attorney had no concerns about how the case was cleared or handled, but after the agreement was signed, she realized there was no There was no state law to help school board members also receive gift cards.
“We recognize that some members of the public believe a public vote was legally required, although our attorney does not care how this was handled, and therefore I will ask council to formally vote to accept the protocol. agreement at its next regular school board meeting. in February,” Hopkins wrote in an email to a concerned resident.
Resident, Mark Turek of Randolph, said he was concerned about the amount of money that was given in addition to how it was handled “quietly”, without public notification. Gardiner, West Gardiner, and Pittston are also in MSAD 11.
“I am not a parent; I don’t have kids in school, but as a taxpayer I’m really concerned about how our taxes, local or state, are spent,” Turek said.
Hopkins said board members received a copy of the agreement at the Dec. 2 board meeting during the executive session after the lawyer was given a “short period” to produce the document before the end of the year.
“A raise and/or a larger allowance would have cost taxpayers far more than the gift cards,” Hopkins wrote in a statement. “The gift cards were meant to show the school board’s appreciation for each employee who went above and beyond to keep our schools running and open for in-person learning.
Hopkins, in an email to Turek, said gift card spending is not specifically listed in the 2021-22 budget, but said under the law, the school board may transfer an amount not exceeding 5% from one “cost centre” to another, without having to hold a public vote.
MSD 11 budget for the year 2021 to 2022 is $26.82 million with $10.60 million of the budget raised locally.
Maine borrowers to benefit from Navient student loan settlement