Cape Elizabeth Education Foundation calls School Board’s proposed grant policy a threat

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CAPE ELIZABETH — The Cape Elizabeth Education Foundation says its future is threatened by a proposed School Board policy to control grant funding.

School Board Chairwoman Elizabeth Scifres said the foundation is overreacting.

Under existing policy, a teacher or school staffer may apply for a grant after meeting with teacher-advisers on the CEEF board.

Proposed Policy KCE would make grants from organizations like CEEF more difficult to acquire by requiring any grant of $5,000 or more to receive prior approval from the School Department business administrator and the superintendent of schools, followed by School Board review.

Additionally, grant proposals would have to disclose any costs to the School Department for facility maintenance and additional staff, and whether there would be impact on any school buildings.

Grants of less than $5,000 would require approval from the school principal.

In a May 31 email to CEEF members and donors, foundation President James T. Britt said the proposal “threatens innovation in our schools. … If we are not careful, CEEF as we know it will come to an end during the School Board’s next regular meeting on June 14, 2016.”

The message urged supporters of the nonprofit foundation to protest the change at a School Board Policy Committee meeting on Monday, June 6. On Friday, June 3, however, the School Board postponed that meeting until after July 1, when interim School Superintendent Howard Colter will join the discussion.

Britt backed down somewhat from the email rhetoric in an interview Wednesday, saying the message was designed “to make a point.”

“We’re going into this policy meeting not angrily,” he said. “We’re going in with hope of solving this issue.”

He said the problem CEEF has is the proposal would restrict the organization’s independence.

“We’re an independent organization,” he said. “Our major concern is, as soon as only grants with formal approval come before CEEF, that our independence has been removed.”

Britt said donors could be less inclined to support CEEF because of the loss of autonomy, and teachers may view the approval process as having too many hoops to jump through.

Scifres, meanwhile, said the School Board has been conducting an audit of all its policies for the past five years in what she called a “systematic process,” and the grant policy changes were recommended by auditors.

“We got a firm directive that we needed to have better control,” she said. “They suggested anything above $5,000 really needs to have the approval of the superintendent and the board.”

Scifres also said the proposed policy change would provide a better understanding of any financial impact that may have to be budgeted.

Britt said CEEF grants fund projects that fall outside the annual budget.

He said CEEF has started a petition to modify the proposed policy, which the May 31 email described as “stifling teacher and staff innovation by adding unnecessary hurdles to the grant process.”

He also said CEEF is prepared to disclose anticipated future budget impacts, but the group wants the formal approval requirement removed from the language. He said the foundation is open to language such as “review and discussion.”

Scifres said she did not know why the foundation believes Policy KCE may be approved June 14. While the board is scheduled to meet that day, she said the proposal is still in the policy committee.

She said there was “misinformation” in the foundation email, and the board was “shocked” to read it.

“It’s not a done deal,” she said. “It never was carved in stone to be in the June 14 agenda; that agenda hasn’t even been developed yet.”

Although “we have to take seriously what our auditors advise us,” Scifres said it’s likely the policy will need more work.

“The language is absolutely not set in stone,” she said.

CEEF has awarded nearly $1.2 million in grants to Cape Elizabeth schools since it was founded in 2001. This spring nearly $75,000 was awarded to six teacher- and student-led initiatives.

At other public education foundations in southern Maine – many of which were modeled on CEEF – the obligation to obtain approval from a superintendent, business administrator or school board is not uncommon.

In Falmouth, for example, the School Department requires that any outside gift or expenditure over $5,000 from the Falmouth Education Foundation must be approved by the School Board.

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

Updated Monday, June 6.

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Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net.