MONTGOMERY, Ala. – An Alabama teacher who accepts a Christmas ham or a $25 gift card from a student is breaking Alabama's ethics law. The possible penalty? Up to a year in jail and a $6,000 fine for the teacher who accepts the gift.
The law, which took effect earlier this year and is considered one of the toughest in the country, limits what public officials and employees can receive as gifts to a "de minimis" value, but it doesn't define that amount. With most schools about to get out for the holidays, the State Ethics Commission has been flooded with calls about what students can give.
"The bottom line for me is, our teachers are being forced to make a decision between breaking the law or breaking a child's heart," said Amy O'Neal, a teacher at Pine Crest Elementary School about 30 miles southeast of Birmingham.
In an advisory opinion Wednesday, the Ethics Commission said "hams, turkeys or gift cards with a specific monetary value are not permissible." Items of nominal value, such as homemade cookies, coffee mugs and fruit baskets, are acceptable. The commission didn't give a dollar amount for student-teacher gifts.
O'Neal said the guidelines were still vague. She said her four children had already picked out monogrammed scarves at a reduced price for their teachers, and they planned to give them. She didn't think that would violate that law.
The sponsor of the law, Republican Sen. Bryan Taylor, said it protects teachers against accusations of favoritism to students who give them big gifts and avoids embarrassment for low-income students.
"In every classroom, there is a Tiny Tim who can't afford a turkey or ham," Taylor said.
The law was passed after the indictment of four legislators and two lobbyists on corruption charges. It was one of the first bills to be approved by Republican legislators after they swept state elections in November 2010.
Gary Rivers, the principal at Pine Crest, was troubled by educators being lumped in with elected officials. "I don't see how you can compare lobbyists in Montgomery giving gifts to elected officials to children giving gifts to their teachers," he said.
The Ethics Commission said providing an exception for teachers would weaken the law.
"The suggestion that it is harmless for a school child to give a Christmas gift to their teacher ignores the potential for abuse," the commission said.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, many states have laws restricting gifts to public officials, particularly from lobbyists, but none are as broad as Alabama's.
"I have not heard of public school teachers being specifically targeted for a prohibition of gifts and allowing ones of de minimus value," said Peggy Kerns, director of NCSL's Center for Ethics in Government.
Eric Mackey, executive director of the School Superintendents of Alabama, said he wished the Legislature had kept Alabama's old ethics law that allowed holiday gifts under $100. "It was clear and easy," he said.
The commission said a gift card would be permissible if the PTA or a classroom parent collected a few dollars each from several students and pooled it to buy the card. Commission staff members suggested each donation be less than $5.
Taylor, the law's sponsor, said if there were a violation, someone would have to make a complaint about a teacher and the commission would investigate. The commission could handle an inadvertent violation with a small fine on a teacher, but it would likely refer a case to a prosecutor if it appeared a teacher accepted a big gift and then changed a grade, Taylor said.