2017-12-21 / News

School district distances itself from Feinstein organization

Board gives back $1,000 donation, takes down sign

A sign identifying Melrose School as an Alan Shawn Feinstein institution was ripped from the building’s wall after the school committee expressed vehement opposition.

B.J. Whitehouse, the board’s chairman, led the charge. He called Feinstein a “charlatan” who scammed students in the late 1990s by promising them $50 in exchange for good deeds. Instead, Whitehouse said, Feinstein handed them South African coins valued at 76 cents.

“I do not want that man’s name on our school,” Whitehouse said.

The controversy spanned three meetings, Oct. 19, Nov. 16 and Dec. 7. During the October session, principal Carrie Petersen was “excited” to report Melrose was accepted into Feinstein’s leadership program.

“We’re bringing it back,” she said.

Whitehouse, however, did not pay attention to the announcement. If he had listened, there would have been an immediate objection, he said. However, because of Whitehouse’s self-described “senior moment,” the measure moved forward.

Two weeks later, the Feinstein organization prominently displayed its sign on Melrose Avenue. That action, however, was to the dismay of Committeewoman Dorothy Strang during an October visit to Melrose. She revived the issue at the November meeting.

“I’m wondering what the heck that is,” she asked.

In response, Superintendent Ken Duva said the board didn’t object to the Feinstein sponsorship in October, which led to the foundation donating $1,000.

“I got a real problem with this,” Whitehouse said.

The committee directed Duva to fix the situation. An update in December revealed the relationship with Feinstein was severed and the donation was returned. Petersen apologized for the confusion, saying she would have trod lightly if she knew about Whitehouse’s apprehension.

“I would have never moved forward in the process,” she said.

Whitehouse, however, told Petersen he was responsible for the mishap.

“I should have stated at that very moment that I wanted nothing to do with it,” he said about the October meeting.

While the debacle essentially was harmless, the misunderstanding did fuel a discussion about whether the school board should oversee donations. Committeewoman Sally Schott said the decision to accept private money warrants more discussion. She used Feinstein as an example against giving sole discretion to one person.

“You guys have a strong opinion about not liking him,” she said. “I don’t know a lot about him. I trust your judgment, but it’s $1,000. What if it’s $10,000? I think we need to have a process in place.”

Strang agreed, saying “public schools need to be very leery of donations, particularly if they have strings attached.”

“We’ll take donations, but we won’t sell our soul,” said Committeewoman Sarah Baines.

Finally, Whitehouse clarified the scope of the school committee’s jurisdiction.

“Nobody puts a name on a wall without school committee approval,” he said.

The board heeded Duva’s recommendation to forward the discussion to the policy subcommittee.

Feinstein, a Massachusetts native and former public school teacher, established his foundation in 1993 “to empower youngsters to reach out to help others.” His organization has dedicated $40 million to Rhode Island schools since its founding, according to his website.

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