Schools draw criticism for political donations

Some public funds used for contributions

March 27, 2006|By JOHN FRITZE AND LIZ F. KAY | JOHN FRITZE AND LIZ F. KAY,SUN REPORTERS

Nearly 20 schools - including a handful of public schools - have made donations to political campaigns in Maryland in recent years, prompting criticism that the money should be spent on students, not candidates.

Though the contributions are small and appear to be an oversight in some cases, the schools - from Baltimore County's Parkville High to the Foundation Schools, which offers special education courses near Washington - are listed on state records as giving to campaigns.

A statement from the Maryland attorney general's office said the contributions would "not be a proper use of public funds." Separately, federal law forbids nonprofit organizations - a status many private schools enjoy - from endorsing candidates or contributing to their election efforts.

"Our position is: Public money is for public education," said Mary Jo Neil, president of the Maryland PTA.

After questions were raised about the school donations by The Sun this month, one slate of candidates, which includes Baltimore County Republican Dels. Joseph C. Boteler III and John W.E. Cluster Jr., quickly agreed to return about $755 received from Parkville High.

"Neither of us feel we should be getting money from a school," said Cluster, adding that he was not aware the contributions were from schools when they were made. "We think the money should be used for schools."

In all, schools have given nearly $6,000 since 2000, according to an analysis of campaign finance records. About half were public schools, mainly from Baltimore County and the city school system, though many more receive government funding.

Five Baltimore County schools, including Parkville High, gave a total of more than $1,600. Three Baltimore City schools - Sarah M. Roach Elementary, West Baltimore Middle and Southwestern High - gave $400 in total, according to the disclosure reports.

A range of politicians received money from schools, including Del. Emmett C. Burns Jr., a Baltimore County Democrat; Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.; and Del. Anthony G. Brown, a Prince George's Democrat and a candidate for lieutenant governor.

A spokesman for Brown, who is running with Mayor Martin O'Malley, said he will return the $500 donation made last year by the Foundation Schools, located in Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

"The donations came in as part of a fundraiser that the delegate had on Nov. 10," said the spokesman, Rick Abbruzzese. "He's planning to return the check."

`Bad practice'

Several principals and district officials could not explain how the money had changed hands. Some said they did not know the event they attended was political and some blamed faulty recordkeeping by the campaigns.

Brice Freeman, a spokesman for Baltimore County schools, said he believes the money in his district was spent from school activity funds.

"What's indicated here is certainly bad practice," said Freeman, who noted that the problem was isolated to five of the system's 163 schools. "We do expect principals to use good judgment when using student activity funds."

Schools can collect money for the activity funds through vending machines sales, for instance, or through fees charged on school pictures. But the district's policy on those funds requires the money to be spent on projects that "contribute directly to the educational experience or morale of the students." The city schools have a similar directive.

Parkville High raises between $15,000 and $18,000 each year from vending machine commissions, said Principal Kevin C. Harahan.

He said he has used the money to send teachers to conferences, for example, and to buy pizza for evening study sessions. Since 2002, he confirmed, he also spent $1,055 to purchase tables at events organized by Boteler, Cluster and Baltimore County Councilman Joseph Bartenfelder, a Fullerton Democrat.

"My intention was just to promote the school and promote the community," Harahan said, adding that schools are an integral part of the community. "You want to get the school's name out there."

Harahan said he takes the blame for the contributions. "In retrospect, it probably wasn't a wise move," he said.

Bartenfelder said his treasurer reimbursed a $300 contribution after learning about the donation from The Sun. "It's not one I either want or need," he said.

Randallstown Elementary Principal Marcel Hall said she did not remember attending any political events, even though the school is listed as making a $150 donation to Burns in 2000. Principals at other Baltimore County schools from which contributions had been made, including Hebbville Elementary and Old Court Middle, also said they had not known of the contributions.

"That's not something we do normally," Hall said. "We're always trying to get things, not give somebody something."

Burns, the Baltimore County Democrat, listed seven donations from public schools - contributions that added up to about $950. He said he has held events to honor students but said he invited parents to attend, not schools.

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