Alabama ethics law cracks down on student gifts to teachers

Alabama ethics law cracks down on student gifts to teachers

December 2nd, 2011 by Kevin Hardy in News

Dimitric Hurd gets a few pointers on his classwork from teacher Betty Ann Vaughn on Thursday. Vaughn reviewed mathematics with her fourth grade class Thursday morning at Bridgeport Elementary School in Bridgeport, Ala.

Photo by Jake Daniels/Times Free Press.

POLL: Do you think gifts for teachers should be banned?

You can give an Alabama teacher an apple this holiday season - but not much more.

A change in the state ethics law regulating gifts to public employees means teachers won't be able to accept gifts of any substantial value from their students this holiday season.

Legislators restricted their own involvement with lobbyists in ethics reforms last year, but the new rules also apply to all 295,000 state employees, including teachers.

Teachers say the gifts they receive are usually of nominal value, but they still don't like the idea of turning down a student's present.

During a special session last December, Alabama legislators removed an exception that allowed seasonal gifts of up to $100 in value. This Christmas season, cash, gift cards and holiday hams are out for teachers, but they can still accept some gifts, such as homemade cookies, candles or ornaments.

"Anything of little intrinsic value," said James Sumner, director of the Alabama Ethics Commission. "Something of relatively insignificant value - a candle, a coffee mug - is fine. It just can't be a $50 gift card to Costco or Target."

He said the law gives no specific dollar limit on gifts.

While the new rules, effective in January of this year, apply to teachers, Sumner said it was never targeted at teachers alone.

"It applies to teachers only because they're public employees," he said. "It doesn't single them out."

Bridgeport Elementary School teacher Kathy Kilgore said teachers, especially those at the elementary level, took issue with the new rules.

"That was a little bit, I think, hurtful, condescending, to think we couldn't accept something from a caring student," she said. "That's kind of important to them."

Kilgore said teachers aren't upset that they can't receive gifts, it's the thought of being forced to turn away gifts from small students.

"Not only is it hurtful to us, but it's hurtful to the child," she said. "Even if it's just a small memento."

Kilgore, now a reading coach, has worked as a teacher for 26 years in Bridgeport, many of those teaching first and second grades. Save a gift card or two, she said, most of the gifts she received were of little value, such as picture frames, bookmarks, socks, scarves, gloves and candles.

One year, a boy brought in his own stuffed animal because it was all he could give, she said. At one point, she asked that students stop bringing her presents and instead bring classroom supplies such as tissues or pencils.

"You know what they did? They bought that stuff and they still bought me a gift," she said. "It's just the fact that the child wants to give something."

The issue has caused widespread concern from teachers across the state, said Sheila Cornelison, cq a director for the Alabama Education Association. The teachers union leader represents 2,200 teachers in four school systems and one community college in Northeast Alabama.

"They're not upset because they're not getting a gift," she said. "They worry about how their students feel."

Cornelison said the union is worried the law was rushed through during a special session and never saw much debate or conversation. What worries teachers most, she said, is the possibility of accepting some homemade gifts while also having to decline other gifts.

"You can take one gift and say, 'Thank you very much,' but you can't take the other," she said. "How you can tell a small child that?"