Ravell Call, Deseret News
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.
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. —Greg Hudnall, Provo School District

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.

Granite District assistant superintendent Mike Fraser said: "We've had dozens of instances where we've had concerns. Our concern is how that impacts kids and whether we're providing equal access to all activities to all students."

Granite spokesman Ben Horsley offers two examples:

At one school a parent involved in helping with a musical program donated significant items, including costumes and sets, then wanted influence in choosing who the play's acting lead.

A booster club parent purchased and donated uniforms. When a decision was made that the parent disagreed with, this parent tried to use those items as leverage to change the coach's decision.

"It's an across-the-board problem," said Horsley of fundraising and donations. "With the Timpview incident, it demonstrated some issues, and then the state conducted a number of trainings, and we wanted to provide our administrators, our coaches and our teachers as much guidance as possible about how they are to proceed."

In both districts, how donations were handled really was left to a principal's discretion. In some cases, principals were careful and had donors sign forms that say the donations now belong to the district. In other cases, principals were grateful for the help and didn't know the law required more of them.

"I think there was some confusion about the process, particularly about accepting gifts," Horsley said.

With the new policies, every step of the process is outlined in writing.

"The donor is notified that once the contribution is made it becomes the school's property, to be used at the school's discretion," said Horsley, a sentiment that is conveyed in Provo's policy as well.

There is one difference.

In Granite boosters can no longer participate in decision-making roles.

Provo eliminated the volunteer option. So, for example, the Timpview football program now employs several boosters as assistant coaches, men who have been supportive of the school and district financially and previously volunteered their services to the school's coaches. Those boosters are now bound by the ethical and legal constraints of any other public employee.

"The board and district felt it was important to have consistency," said Hudnall. "The one way to do that is to have everyone as employees. Then everyone has to play by the same rules."

Still, Provo officials are intrigued by the action taken by Granite officials.

"Granite's policy is interesting and it's something we'll look at," said Hudnall, who points out that public school administrators often share experiences with each other. "It doesn't mean we're going to adopt it. … But we'll look at it, and if there are pieces we like, we'd propose them to the board."

Granite officials don't believe the new policy will inhibit future donations because they have many donors who are not affiliated with a school or programs. "There have been a lot of prominent people who give to schools in the Granite District, and say, 'I don't want my name out there. I'm doing this because I really believe in public education.' And kids have benefited greatly from these private donations."

"This is not a 'Cate rule,' " Horsley said. "But there are concerns with the situation at Cottonwood. We do not want to diminish in any way his considerable generosity. We certainly wish him well as he moves onto something new, and it cannot be overstated enough how appreciative the district is for his support of the entire school."

Cate said he's not bitter about the change, just baffled. He said he never was asked to sign anything over to the school or the district.

"Nobody asked me about donating," he said. "I wasn't writing it off. That's not why I was doing it."

In fact, he contends Cottonwood administrators and coaches were told, more than once, by district officials that if they needed something athletics-related they should ask Cate to pay for it.

"Skyline got their snack bar, so we asked for ours," said Cate. "We were told, 'You don't get it because you have Cate.' For 13 years the district hasn't spent money on Cottonwood sports because if they've needed it, I've paid for it."

Cate told the Deseret News last week that he was asked to have all of his belongings off school property before officials changed the locks. He estimates he took $300,000 to $400,000 worth of equipment.

"I'll donate the stuff to one of the other schools I work with outside of Utah," he said.

District officials, however, said they would have accepted the items Cate took with him as donations. They simply meant for him to take that which he wished to keep for himself.

New Cottonwood principal Alan Parrish said he and the new football coach have made a list of what needs to be replaced and what it will cost. Parrish said any replacement items would be comparable to what other schools in Granite District have.

However, Horsley said much of what Cate took with him isn't standard operating equipment for a prep football program — including "collegiate level video-editing systems and camera systems."

"Most of that equipment will not be replaced as it is above and beyond what any high school program has," said Horsley. "Taxpayers will not see any additional tax burden as a result of this. We'll provide the same resources to Cottonwood that any other high school has."

Cate gave the Deseret News a list of items he's donated, including more than $3.2 million in donated items he'll leave behind.

Cate, by the district's June 28 deadline, took most of the property that he plans to remove. He did, however, temporarily leave $260,000 worth of weight-room equipment, stadium speakers and sound system and blocking sleds, all of which he plans to remove at the end of football season. He said he doesn't want the players to suffer any disadvantage just a few weeks before the season starts.

Cate's supporters, including many former players, said the list doesn't include the countless hours he's spent helping student-athletes — some from other schools — with the recruiting process, including making DVDs, contacting coaches and making phone calls on behalf of the athletes.

The controversy at both schools has caused unintended consequences to the student-athletes involved in the programs. And as the state auditor's office continues to probe various programs, other districts may decide to change or clarify just how private donations are handled in public schools.

Email: adonaldson@desnews.com