This week, philanthropist MacKenzie Scott announced that she’d given just under $2 billion over the last seven months to hundreds of organizations, including a number of public school districts. This kind of unrestricted donation is unusual for public schools — the districts can do whatever they want with the funds.
When Superintendent Bob Nelson learned his school district in Fresno, California, would be receiving a $20 million gift, no strings attached, he thought it was a scam at first.
“And then you find out wow, this is real,” Nelson said. “And not only is it real, but dear God, like one moment, we had, like, $1,200 in this account, and then we had, like, $20,001,200.”
Nelson wants that money from MacKenzie Scott to grow. He’s investing the funds in the district’s foundation to create college scholarships and workforce training for students. Nelson also said that the money is a gift of confidence.
“We are perceived as the armpit of California,” he said. “So to have somebody outside say, ‘Hey, we think what you’re doing is really good. In fact, we’re going to give $20 million’ … that was life-giving water for the valley, quite frankly.”
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Meanwhile, in South Dakota, White River School District 47-1 received a $1.5 million gift. Ninety percent of students there are Native American and some commute long distances.
Many of them play sports, so practices are staggered and can run late. Superintendent Louie Krogman said those funds could be used for a new gym.
“We could use it and get students out of the building earlier, which gets them home earlier, which gets them fed earlier and to bed earlier,” Krogman said.
Whatever they choose, districts should be careful not to spend on things that require ongoing financial commitments, said Marguerite Roza of Georgetown’s Edunomics Lab.
“If they hire people and have to lay them off, that creates a lot of financial pain later down the road,” Roza said.