Our Views: Janesville School Board must review donations policy

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Wednesday, August 14, 2013

It's great when companies donate to the Janesville School District. That's particularly true given that money issues have forced the district to shed programs and jobs in recent years.

The district is smart, however, to review its policy governing donations from companies that do business with the district. Perceptions count, and the district must avoid any perceptions of pay-to-play when it awards contracts.

The donations could be nothing but civic-minded and philanthropic. The Gazette, however, has reported two cases that might leave the impression that companies could curry favor to gain the upper hand in securing contracts with the district.

First, Superintendent Karen Schulte was the cover story for Mercy Health System's “Great People, Great Stories” marketing publication after having eye surgery at Mercy Hospital. Mercy repeated details from the story in an advertisement.

Schulte told The Gazette she participated in what appears to be an endorsement of a business as a private person, not as superintendent.

“It wasn't the School District of Janesville that endorsed this,” she said. “It was Karen Schulte.”

Yet the story included Schulte's job title and pictured her working at the central office. The ad appeared when district employees had to choose between Mercy and another health care provider. Schulte said she didn't know the ad would be timed that way. Don't blame Mercy for seizing the opportunity, but as we said, perceptions matter.

Schulte said Mercy has been great to the district and that its employees volunteer to help run the district track meet for grades 4-5. That's laudable. Schulte says she consulted with the district's legal counsel and some school board members before agreeing to the story if Mercy donated to the district.

“I would take money from just about anyone who is willing to support our fine district and teachers!” she wrote in an email to The Gazette.

The second case involves donations that helped fund trips to China by Schulte and others to lay groundwork for an international education program. Craig High graduate Mike Steinhoff, president of Rhyme Business Products, was among the donors.

Schulte said Steinhoff wanted to remain anonymous so he wasn't flooded with requests for money. That's understandable. Steinhoff's company has had contracts with the district for six years. Those were worth a total of nearly $1.2 million with a peak year of $405,493.

Credit school board member Kevin Murray for responding to residents who wanted more details revealed on the travel expenses and just who is paying for them.

Murray says he doesn't think any company got business simply by donating. He added, however, that it's possible officials might be inclined to subconsciously give a business an advantage if it donated.

That's the rub. Board President Greg Ardrey said he didn't necessarily see anything wrong but wants the board to review and make sure its policy was followed. One aspect of the policy merits special attention. It states the district should not accept gifts that “imply endorsement of any business and product.”

Murray also wants the review and said perhaps the board should have final say on larger donations.

Both make sense. The public needs assurance that no one is gaining an upper hand in doing business with the district simply by donating on the side.

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