Utah high schools change how they accept gifts, donations

Investigations spur districts to spell out policies on donations

Published: Friday, July 6 2012 9:00 p.m. MDT

Mark Cusick speaks as people pack the room in support of Timpview football coach Louis Wong during a Provo City School District Board of Education meeting, Wednesday, March 14, 2012.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — It is a given. Public schools could use more resources.

So when a philanthropist comes along and offers money, goods or services to a public institution, it is a blessing. The reasons for donations vary, but the most common reason comes from an affiliation with a school, a school-sponsored program or surrounding community.

It seems simple enough that, as one woman speaking at a Provo School Board meeting in December said, "If rich people want to give money to the government, the government should take it and say 'thank you.' "

But late last year that "blessing" started to get more complicated.

A series of events, and subsequent investigations and audits, at Timpview High School in Provo exposed the dilemma public school administrators have when they accept gifts.

Timpview head football coach Louis Wong was allowed to resign after three audits found problems with the way money was handled by Wong and others in the athletics program and at the school. Several other administrators were disciplined, and the Provo School District adopted a new donation policy on May 8 that more strictly governs how donations are handled and distributed.

"This was a lesson learned for us," said Provo School District spokesman Greg Hudnall. "We were kind of out there without a policy. While we did have certain expectations, because it wasn't in policy not everyone was abiding by the same rules. A lot of times you don't create a policy until you have a problem. We'd never experienced anything like this in the history of Provo School District."

Meanwhile, Utah State Office of Education officials found the type of problems at Timpview weren't confined to one school — or even one district. A major issue was that educators misunderstood how to handle money being donated to or raised by a public school program — and because of that, in some cases, money was misused.

State law says money raised by, for or through a public institution is public money and must be managed the same way as any other public funds.

Because many districts didn't have policies that made this clear to donors, in some cases boosters who made donations were not only directing where the money was spent but also how.

The state auditor's office is conducting random audits of various sports programs across the state. One of those happens to be Cottonwood High School. And while the audit findings haven't been released, Granite School District officials already are taking steps to change the relationship between donors and schools.

The Granite School Board has a draft policy that will be considered July 10 for final approval that precludes anyone who donates more than $499 to a school or program from serving, even as a volunteer, in any kind of decision-making capacity. That means if a man gives money to a theater program, he can't help cast the show. If a woman gives money to a drill team, she can't have any role in deciding who makes the squad or how those students are utilized.

The policy came to light when one of the state's most generous boosters, Scott Cate, was told he no longer could volunteer as a coach at Cottonwood, because of his donations, which total somewhere between $4 million and $5 million over 13 years.

The rule is more closely aligned with NCAA guidelines for boosters at colleges.

Hudnall said an associate who retired from BYU told him what high schools are facing now is similar to the changes college programs went through 20 years ago.

While officials in both Provo and Granite districts say the changes may be prompted by concerns over sports programs, the problems are not confined to athletics.