Gifts to Southwest prompt policy review
A School Board committee reviewed but recommended no change to Minneapolis Public Schools’ policy on private donations after accepting an alumnus’ latest gift to Southwest High School.
Harvey Feldman’s donations to Southwest in the past year total more than half a million dollars. Most recently, Feldman pledged to cover the estimated $200,000–$225,000 cost to install air conditioning in the school’s auditorium, prompting School Board Member Carla Bates to raise the issue of equity at the board’s Jan. 14 meeting.
Bates began her comments by thanking Feldman, but said she wanted the board to discuss “the distribution of private funds among our schools.” She said other districts have “very firm policies around private donations in the name of equity.”
The board’s Policy Committee happened to have a scheduled meeting the very next morning. School Board Chair Richard Mammen, who heads the committee, said they discussed the policy and decided they were comfortable with the discretion the existing language gives the superintendent.
“I felt there were enough safeguards in that to provide a superintendent good direction,” Mammen said. The issue was referred to the board’s Equity and Achievement Committee.
On the question of equity and gifts, Mammen said: ““Has it been an issue? Not necessarily. It’s going to be an issue if it’s made an issue.”
Bates, on the other hand, said it is an issue in Minneapolis, and not a new one. Some schools have family and alumni communities that “can provide more resources for them,” she said.
“The Feldman donation … is the occasion for this to come up, but not the reason,” she said. “It’s just been a longstanding issue in our schools given the real issues around equity … across our city, in terms of poverty and that sort of thing.”
Bates noted other districts have reviewed and updated their donation policies to address the issue, specifically mentioning Edina.
Susan Brott, an Edina district spokesperson, said that district’s policy on gifts, donations and bequests was updated in 2011. Equity is mentioned once, in a clause that states gifts funding a specific employee position may be accepted only if it “does not create inequities among schools and/or comparable programs and services.”
Southwest Foundation Chair Christa Anders said it’s only natural that alumni like Feldman feel a particular connection to their high school. Anders pointed to the example of Winston “Win” Wallin.
The former Medtronic CEO, philanthropist and 1943 South High School graduate started his Wallin Education Partners at South in 1992, but later expanded the scholarship program to other high schools in Minneapolis and across the metro. Wallin died in 2010.
Said Anders: “To me it’s disheartening when somebody wants to help students and we want to put up barriers.”
Feldman, 70, is a retired bar owner who, he said, got some good investment advice from his longtime financial advisor. His first gift to Southwest was a $300,000 matching donation to the Southwest Foundation’s successful campaign to purchase permanent lighting for the school’s athletic field. The lights were installed last summer.
A former high school athlete, Feldman was inspired to award four $2,500 college scholarships to the school’s “most-improved” student athletes last spring. He later upped the award to $5,000 a year for four years.
Feldman’s gifts also helped the Southwest Foundation fund ACT test preparation for students this year. And after meeting with AchieveMpls, the district’s nonprofit partner, Feldman is planning to visit more of the city’s high schools and explore other opportunities for giving.
“I don’t just have affection for my high school, I have an affection for the whole city,” he said.
Feldman said he understood the equity concerns raised by Bates, but suggested a different approach to donations.
“Don’t discourage me; try to encourage more mes,” he said.
CORRECTION: The original version of this story misstated Feldman’s age. He is 70, not 71.