The chairman of the Lebanon County Republican Committee may have jumped the gun last week when he initiated a fundraiser benefiting Palmyra Area School District.
Casey Long, who has chaired the GOP committee for six years, had an ambitious target for a GoFundMe campaign launched on Friday that’s said to be supporting Palmyra students and teachers – the goal listed on the campaign’s GoFundMe page is $500,000.
As of Tuesday morning, the campaign had received eight donations totaling $1,755.
While any amount might seem welcome, Long’s fundraising efforts run afoul of a district policy that prohibits the campaign.
Board Policy 702, provided to LebTown by district superintendent Bernie Kepler, spells out exactly who can and can’t use crowdfunding strategies to benefit the district.
“The Palmyra Area School District Board of School Directors recognizes that crowdfunding campaigns have become an increasingly popular method by which teachers and organizations can procure funding for specific projects and/or programs,” the policy states. “The revenue-raising potential that crowdfunding campaigns may provide may be a benefit for district programs and classrooms. The district further recognizes, however, that unregulated employee use of crowdfunding campaigns on behalf of the district can subject both the district and employees to significant potential legal liability.”
Among the restrictions included in the policy is the following:
“Only employees and/or eligible organizations with written approval from the district pursuant to this policy are permitted to utilize crowdfunding campaigns for district purposes or programs. Groups, clubs, and/or organizations that have not been granted formal recognition/approval may not be granted permission to engage in crowdfunding campaigns on behalf of the district.”
Kepler said Monday that he became aware of Long’s campaign “and did inform him on Saturday morning that the district’s policy prohibited” the effort.
That frustrates Long, who said in an interview Monday afternoon that he was trying to offset a large tax increase for district residents.
The school board’s preliminary budget for the 2020-21 school year proposed a 3.3 percent tax hike — the maximum allowed by the state, Long said. While the board was also looking at a lower increase that would require deeper cuts to the district’s spending plan, Long said some parents were pushing to keep taxes high and school programs and staffing intact. (According to the Daily News, a compromise of a 1.8 percent increase is set to be voted on at the next meeting.)
“That’s outrageous, especially with the economy being in the state that it is,” he said.
Palmyra schools are looking at a budget shortfall of more than $2 million, largely due to issues surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a LebTown report in April. The board then was working on a spending plan in excess of $56 million.
At a school board meeting last Thursday, Long said he suggested the board look at alternatives to a tax increase. He said he proposed the GoFundMe campaign so that “all the parents that had been expressing their support to pay more for their children’s education could donate, and it would alleviate the burden on those in our community who aren’t able to pay more right now.”
Long added that he “thought that might be a nice compromise.”
Long said board president Christopher Connell encouraged him to organize the fundraiser, and he did so the next morning.
On the GoFundMe page, Long says the money raised “will allow for the restoration of critical elementary school teaching positions and keep class sizes small to facilitate a great learning environment for our children. In addition, it will eliminate the need for a property tax increase, which would be devastating to so many seniors, disabled and unemployed residents during these unprecedented and challenging times.”
He sent a link to the page to members of the GOP committee, asking them to “support a great cause” and share the link with friends and family on social media. He identified himself in the note as chairman of the Lebanon County Republican Committee. He also sent the link to school officials — and that, he said, is when he ran into a roadblock.
He said he was contacted by Kepler, who told him the campaign “violated school board policy” and “they would not accept any funds raised through it.”
“It was stunning,” Long said. “I find it completely nonsensical that the board would have such a policy, where they would refuse money from members of the community who are trying to help.”
He said he contacted Connell, who told him it was a fairly new policy and “they weren’t thinking about it” when they encouraged Long to start his campaign.
Connell, contacted Monday evening, said he “would never hold somebody back from trying to do something that might benefit someone else.”
He said Long spoke after 33 other people had their turn with the board.
“Given that most of us had a long work day and we were already 4 hours into the meeting, I don’t think anyone was in a state of mind to think about policies at that point,” Connell said in an email. “I believe that the concern came when Mr. Long asked that the link for the GoFundMe link be added to the district website. Dr. Kepler then reviewed the policy and determined it was not within policy guidelines.”
That frustrates Long, who said the district later sanctioned another GoFundMe campaign, organized by the Cougar Foundation, to raise money for student activities in the district.
“It seems like they are picking and choosing,” Long said.
For now, he said, he plans to keep the page up, despite some people reporting the campaign as a scam. Long said he personally donated $500 of the $1,755 raised so far. Long associate Mike Barley also donated $500. At least one donation on the page appears to have been made under a false identity, that of former Palmyra Area School District board member Paul Fogle. Fogle has also criticized the effort on the neighborhood forum Nextdoor.
“The folks organizing this are lying,” said Fogle in a Nextdoor post this weekend. “They don’t care about the schools or the teachers. It’s a stunt and a mockery of the budgeting process.”
“I’d say I’m shocked but really am not.”
“I would certainly like the board to vote to accept these funds. I believe they have the power to do that,” Long said. “Frankly, at this point, I’m not sure if it was ever the board’s goal, or the goal of many of these parents, to raise funds like this. I think the goal all along was to raise taxes, unfortunately.”
Long said he will keep the page active and raise as much money as he can for the district until the board’s next meeting, at 6 p.m. on June 25, when the board is scheduled to vote on the tax increase. He said he will ask board members to “reconsider and approve accepting these funds” at that meeting.
With GoFundMe, funds are dispersed to campaign organizers regardless of whether the goal is reached. Long has not said how funds would be used if ultimately the district refuses to accept them.
“It seems ridiculous not to, but that’s ultimately up to them,” he said.
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