GARDINER — Members of Maine School Administrative District 11 school board are returning $250 gift cards they received as part of a recent $94,000 purchase that sent the cards to every staff member during the holidays. 

The 12 board members were informed this week by Superintendent Patricia Hopkins they could not legally accept the gift cards. District administration sent the cards to 364 staff members to mollify labor unions with MSAD 11 that had asked for more compensation and contract changes amid the staffing stresses brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Superintendent Patricia Hopkins speaks to the school board on Sept. 18, 2020, via Zoom. Kennebec Journal file screenshot

The gift card purchases, which were not advertised publicly nor discussed at board meetings, drew criticism from at least one district resident, who emailed school officials to question whether it was an appropriate expense. The district provided a statement about the gift cards when the Kennebec Journal inquired this week about them.

The purchase totaled $94,000 and staff received either a Hannaford, Amazon, Walmart, or a prepaid VISA gift card before they left for winter break Dec. 22. 

Hopkins said the money for the cards was “within the regular budget that the district voters approved at the district budget meeting and ratified at the budget validation referendum.” She said that there was additional money in the budget to make the purchase from “carry over due to positions that were unable to be filled as well as unexpected COVID-19 relief funds.”  

“The purchase of these gift cards came from funds only available because of staff shortages caused by the pandemic and reflect the district’s efforts to support our staff and mitigate against the work stress they are now dealing with everyday,” Hopkins said. 

Under the district board’s policy, only its chairperson, Becky Fles, can act as a spokesperson if individual board members receive questions. Fles declined comment, instead pointing to the district’s statement as being made on behalf of the full board and Hopkins.

The $250 gift cards are part of a memorandum of understanding, also called an MOU, between the district’s labor unions for the 2021-2022 school year. The agreement, which runs through June 23, also enables staff to have access to their sick days at the start of the year, instead of by accumulation, and gave additional time off for COVID-19-related circumstances. 

The memorandum of understanding is between the MSAD 11 board, the Gardiner Teacher’s Association, the MSAD 11 Custodian MEA, the district’s bus drivers, the Educational Technicities and Administrative Assistant’s MEA, and the Non-Instructional Education Association. The labor unions came to the board in November asking for negotiations on their contract.  

Hopkins said the district board gave her approval to make negotiations on behalf of the labor unions, working alongside the district’s attorney. Hopkins said in a statement that the attorney has had no concern over how the matter has been authorized or handled, but after the understanding was signed, she realized there is no state law to support school board members also receiving the gift cards. 

“We recognize some members of the public believe a public vote was legally required, despite our attorney having no concern with how this was handled, and therefore, I will ask the board to officially vote to accept the MOU at its next Regular School Board Meeting in February,” Hopkins wrote in an email to a concerned resident. 

The resident, Mark Turek of Randolph, said he is concerned about how much money was given out in addition to the way it was “quietly” handled, with no public notification. Gardiner, West Gardiner and Pittston are also in MSAD 11.

“I’m not a parent; I don’t have kids in school, but as a taxpayer, I’m really concerned on how our tax dollars, local or state, how any of it, is being spent,” Turek said. 

Hopkins said board members were given a copy of the agreement at the Dec. 2 board meeting during executive session after the lawyer had a “short-time period” to produce the document before the year’s end. 

“A wage increase and or larger stipend would have cost taxpayers considerably more than the gift cards,” Hopkins wrote in a statement. “The gift cards were intended to show the School Board’s appreciation for every employee who has gone above and beyond to keep our schools operating and open for in-person learning.”  

Hopkins, in an email to Turek, said the expenses of the gift cards are not specifically written into the 2021-2022 budget, but said under law, the school board can transfer an amount not exceeding 5% from a “cost center” to another, without having to go to a public vote. 

MSAD 11’s budget for the 2021 to 2022 year is $26.82 million with $10.60 million of the budget raised locally. 

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.