By Carla Branch
The Alexandria School Board tackled two controversial issues that the previous Board chose not to address at a regularly scheduled meeting last night. The Board agenda included discussions about the Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS) Educational Foundation and the transfer of a city-funded teacher from the Sheltercare program to the State funded Juvenile Detention Center. ACPS Superintendent Morton Sherman and Deputy Superintendent Madye Henson provided few answers to the Board's many questions.
Alexandrianews.org first reported the existence of the ACPS Educational Foundation in November. According to Virginia State Corporation Commission records, Sherman, Henson and former Board Chair Sheryl Gorsuch incorporated the foundation on Oct. 25, 2011. They were listed as the foundation's three Board members. Alexandrianews.org asked Sherman and Gorsuch a number of questions but Gorsuch did not respond and Sherman provided no substantive information. Alexandrianews.org also contacted Inova Alexandria Hospital CEO Christine Candio, who is listed as the foundation Board Chair and asked the same questions and she did not respond.
Former School Board Member Scott Newsham asked Sherman and Henson for copies of the Internal Revenue Service paperwork designating the foundation as a 501(c)3 tax-exempt entity. He received the IRS determination letter but not the Form 1023 application for 501(c)3 status. Both documents must be provided to any member of the public who requests them by law. Neither Newsham nor members of the current School Board have received the Form 1023 more than a month after it was requested.
Board member Bill Campbell asked Sherman if the establishment of the foundation required Board approval. “From my discussions and understanding it did not require formal approval of the ACPS Board,” Sherman said.
Sherman also told the Board that he could not speak for the foundation Board. “The Board needs six to nine months before they will be ready to talk about specific projects or take any information to the public,” Sherman said.
The only Board members who are listed on any public documents are Sherman, Gorsuch and Henson. Also, a four-color brochure on the foundation was printed and is being distributed by ACPS staff to various members of the community. The brochure lists the foundation's address as 2000 N. Beauregard Street, Alexandria, Virginia, 22311. The email address is email@example.com. The phone number is listed as 703 824-9034, which is an ACPS telephone number.
Henson is listed as the foundation's registered agent with the State Corporation Commission at the Beauregard Street address. The bylaws also give Sherman and Henson a great deal of latitude to use ACPS resources to support the foundation's activities.
Section 1.02 of the bylaws is titled "Relationship with ACPS" and reads in part:
"(b) ACPS support of the Foundation may include the following:
- Leasing space, equipment, telephone and fax lines
- Providing technical assistance
- Helping to recruit and train members and volunteers
- Donating staff support, creating television broadcasts, press releases, photo opportunities, and other events to inform the public about the Foundation’s work, and
- Co-sponsoring special events."
Section 1.04 addresses School Employee Participation in Foundation Activities and reads:
“The ACPS Superintendent of Schools and Deputy Superintendent may be officers of the Foundation. The Superintendent reserves the right to make temporary or permanent assignments of ACPS staff to Foundation-related tasks. No school district employees shall be compelled to volunteer on behalf of the Foundation outside of their normal work hours. No school district employees shall be prohibited from volunteering time, donating funds, or serving on any standing or ad hoc committees that support the Foundation’s mission."
Sean McEnearney is a member of the foundation's Board and spoke at last night's meeting. “Former School Board member Eileen Rivera and I are working on the bylaws and we already know that some things need to be changed,” he said.
Board Member Patricia Hennig, a nonprofit comptroller, was not convinced that the foundation may operate without School Board approval. “If the ACPS staff is writing press releases and providing other technical assistance, that is using public funds for a purpose that was not approved by the School Board,” she said. “I want to know who paid for producing the foundation's four-color brochure. I want to see the IRS Form 1023. I want to know what other school funds have been spent on this foundation.”
Board member Bill Campbell expressed concern about the lack of public involvement. “I don't want to wait six to nine months to sort this out,” he said. “I want to have these questions answered on Jan. 24, and I want this Board to make a decision. This foundation might be a good thing but I wish there had been more community input.”
Board member Chris Lewis asked about potential conflicts with the Scholarship Fund of Alexandria. “Have you discussed the foundation with SFA and how do they feel about any potential conflict,” he asked.
Sherman said that there had been no discussion with SFA about the foundation. “This foundation has a very different mission so there won't be any conflict,” he said.
There are many nonprofit organizations in Alexandria and they all compete with each other for funding. The foundation's brochure encourages individuals to donate to the foundation and the bylaws lay out a number of fund raising strategies.
Section 1.07 (Fundraising) reads: “The ACPS Educational Foundation will maintain a continuous program for solicitation of funds from the general public, community, and membership groups as may be established by the Board of Directors and will conduct activities designed to attract support from governmental units or other charitable organizations that support the education of children attending public schools in the City of Alexandria.”
Section 1.08 (Fundraising Strategies) reads: “The Foundation will employ a variety of fund raising strategies that may include: direct and electronic solicitation of donations and grants from individuals, corporate sponsors, philanthropic, and government agencies; fund raising through special events, endowment campaigns, or sales of goods and services. No fund raising will be undertaken without the approval of the Board.”
The School Board asked Sherman why he chose to create a private foundation. “I tried the concept of a public/private partnership to build the new Jefferson-Houston and that was not very well received,” he said. “The private foundation can raise money to help fund special programs that the teachers would like to do but that are not funded by our budget. We only have $57,000 in the Dream Fund and that will not nearly fund the great ideas that our teachers propose.”
The public/private partnership to which Sherman referred would have developed over one million square feet of space on and around the Jefferson-Houston school site. It would have included residential units, retail and commercial space, ACPS administrative space and a new K-8 Jefferson-Houston school. The community rejected the idea because of the size of the project.
Newsham believes that the School Board should table any discussion about the foundation until after the fiscal year 2014 budget is adopted. “I think the School Board should tell this group that the name of the foundation cannot include Alexandria City Public Schools at this time and instruct Dr. Sherman that no ACPS support may be provided to the foundation until further notice,” Newsham said. “If the foundation Board wants School Board support, they should hold community meetings, put together a formal proposal based on the results of those meetings and submit it to the School Board in June or early in the fall. The School Board can then review the request and make an informed decision – one that would have provided real opportunity for public input.
“Board Chair Karen Graf ran for election to the Board emphasizing the need to improve decision-making processes in ACPS. Other candidates spoke frequently about the need for greater transparency and improved public communications. I hope they use this as an opportunity to show these were more than campaign sound bites,” Newsham said.
Lewis is looking for a way to support the foundation. "I am very interested in the potential positive impact that a new well-funded education foundation could have on the ability to serve the students of ACPS,” he said. “While the Scholarship Fund of Alexandria continues to provide tremendous opportunities to our students as they move on to higher education, I believe a new foundation can support efforts to ensure equitable education opportunities and serve our most challenging student populations that have, at times, slipped through the cracks.
“It was unfortunate that a representative of the foundation could not join us at the Board meeting Thursday night and I look forward to hearing from them at a future meeting. The sooner we can begin to define the relationship between ACPS and the foundation, the sooner we can call on it to assist with various division priorities. I was also hoping to be reassured by Dr. Sherman and ACPS staff that accusations that ACPS funds and resources have been used for foundation business were false. Unfortunately this was not addressed by the Superintendent when raised by Board members. It is critical that we as a Board are presented with all of the facts regarding any use of ACPS funds and resources for foundation purposes as soon as possible," Lewis said.
The School Board has instructed Sherman to come to the Jan. 24, meeting prepared to answer all of the Board's questions regarding the foundation.