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For Schools, the Gift Does Count

EDUCATION / SMART RESOURCES FOR STUDENTS AND PARENTS

Officials Say They've Learned to Be Choosy, Politely Refusing Dangerous and Worthless Donations

February 21, 2001|JESSICA GARRISON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The elderly gentleman called the Newport-Mesa schools, offering to donate hundreds of bottles of cleaner for computer monitors. Administrators were ecstatic; the bill for such necessities can easily add up for a good-sized school district.

When the boxes arrived last year, warehouse manager Larry Ponce and his staff eagerly opened them and were dismayed to see printed in bright red letters at the bottom of each bottle: "Keep Away from Children."

"Why did he donate that to the schools?" Ponce asked.

That's a question many schools find reason to ponder as cornucopia of gifts--some useful, but many not--come through the doors. Some accept the gifts with a smile and a shrug, and then hustle them out the back door. Others refuse to be someone's easy tax writeoff. And at least one turns around and resells the stuff to get that really useful commodity--cold cash.

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Donations to schools around Orange County during the past few years have included yards of dirty, used carpet, moldy lawn furniture and--educators shudder to even mention it--untold boxes of old National Geographic magazines. To stem the tide of such gifts, some schools, such as Lakeside Middle School in Irvine, now decline to take useless goods.

Got a 10-year-old Apple computer it seems a shame to throw out? Many schools don't even want to hear about it.

"We're a little more sophisticated now about what we accept," said William Eller, superintendent of the Cypress Unified School District. Four years ago, his district set a minimum standard for technology gifts to ensure donated computers are compatible with the district's existing systems.

Eller still gets plenty of calls offering old Apple II computers, especially around tax time. "But now we just tell people, 'Thank you, but we're not interested.' "

Nevertheless, this year Eller did accept a fake Christmas tree--used--that was erected in the district office.

"That was actually a good gift," he said. "We couldn't have gotten one [otherwise]." Operating on the garage-sale theory that one man's garbage is another's treasure, the Capistrano Unified School District held an auction last fall and sold off many of its unusable gifts, with proceeds going to school coffers. Officials don't know how much they made off the donated bounty, because most of what was sold was surplus district property, such as old school buses. But the district also tries to keep out a lot of unwanted stuff in the first place, said Sharon Good, assistant principal of Marian Bergeson Elementary School in Laguna Niguel.

Still, you never know. Some schools have actually found educational uses for the 200 cubic feet of plastic foam, fish tanks whose former inmates were overfed by zealous children and even broken weightlifting equipment--to list but a few of the delights dropped off on district doorsteps this year.

"You can use just about anything," said Mark Eliot, spokesman for the Tustin Unified School District. Eliot said that as the donations come into the district warehouse, he e-mails teachers, telling them to come look. "I find that teachers are very creative people."

Over the past few months, Tustin's teachers have happily cut up the plastic foam for winter decorations, filled the discarded fish tanks with plants for lessons about ecosystems, and carted off even vacuum cleaners, exercise bikes, saws and golf clubs as classroom equipment. What they were all used for, even Eliot, who handles donations for the district, cannot guess.

"We've gotten just about everything but the kitchen sink," he said. "I'm still waiting for that kitchen sink."

Administrators have learned never to underestimate the ingenuity of a teacher craving more classroom materials to enrich kids' education.

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The decades of accepting obsolete computers have, at some schools, created a cadre of recycling experts who convert their classrooms into after-hours chop shops for old hardware.

"Those Apple II's, they're like Model T Fords," said Peter Cole, principal of San Marino Elementary School in Buena Park. Many of his teachers, he said, can expertly strip a donated Apple II--a model that hasn't been seen in a store showroom for years--and pull out parts that can work in more modern school computers.

Still, Cole was quick to add: "I'm not looking for any more donations of old computers."

Clara Barton Elementary School in Anaheim recently decided to turn down any donated computers that do not contain at least a Pentium II processor; the challenges of networking such machines and making them compatible are too great. So last month, when a parent offered 15 used computers that weren't up to requirements, school officials politely declined, then offered them to the PTA.

The PTA agreed to take the computers and distribute them to needy students, but found they had come without operating systems. So now PTA members are trying to find a company to donate Windows in order to run the computers.

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