No good deed goes unpunished

Generous teacher may have run afoul of state ethics laws on “Ellen DeGeneres Show”

Good deeds, they say, are their own rewards and a Dorchester charter school teacher may soon have to settle for that.

Nicole Bollerman, a third-grade teacher at UP Academy Dorchester, has received well-deserved praise from around the country since the Boston Globe put the spotlight on her just before Christmas for winning a $150,000 prize in an essay contest and then donating the money to her school, which educates some of the city’s poorest and neediest students.

Then Bollerman was flown out to California for a taping that was aired earlier this week of the “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” where the host, who is well-known for showering Good Samaritans with gifts galore, presented her with a $25,000 check and, with a satellite feed coming from UP Academy with students and teachers in the gymnasium, gave out $500 gift cards for every teacher at her school and backpacks filled with school supplies for every student. All of the gifts were courtesy of Target, a DeGeneres show sponsor.

But there may be a hitch – nearly all of the cash gifts, except the students’ backpacks, potentially violate the state’s ethics laws, possibly even the $150,000 award that Bollerman won in the essay contest and gave to the school.

According to the ethics laws, charter school teachers are considered public employees and as such are subject to a $50 limit on gifts.

Scott Given, the founder and CEO of Up Education Network, which runs the Dorchester school and three other in-district charter schools in Boston, said in a statement he is satisfied the gifts comply with ethics laws.

“Nikki Bollerman is a remarkable woman and we are incredibly fortunate to have her and hundreds of teachers just as committed as she is in the UP Education Network,” Given, who is on paternity leave, said in an email. “When she first received word of her prize, her immediate thought was to give back to her students and school. UP was grateful to Nikki for her generous gift and felt it was based on who she is as a person, as an individual, rather than her role as a teacher, and was therefore appropriate. We have since reviewed the matter further and feel the donations are appropriate and reflect the exemptions allowed for acceptance of such donations. We are very proud of Nikki and believe she exhibited a level of selflessness that few of us could match.”

Given’s statement suggests the initial $150,000 award was given to Bollerman as an individual and not as a teacher, and that the subsequent gifts to her by DeGeneres were legal because they all stemmed from the original award. A 1982 ethics ruling buttresses that position. The ruling allowed a court employee to keep a $500 cash award he received from an essay contest on court management practices run by a national organization that sometimes did consulting work for the judiciary. The decision said the employee did not have the power to affect interactions between the organization and the court system.

The issue with Bollerman is similar to what happened last year when four Wellesley firefighters appeared on DeGeneres’ show and were given cruises in recognition of their efforts to rescue a dog that had fallen through thin ice. The firefighters – Capt. Jim Dennehy, Lt. Paul Delaney, Dave Papazian, and Joan Cullinan – were also given monogrammed life vests. There was even a vest for the dog, a golden retriever named Crosby.

Wellesley Fire Chief Richard DeLorie made the firefighters send back the cruise tickets when they returned from California so as not to run afoul of the ethics laws. The firefighters kept the vests because, with their names on them, it was determined their value was less than $50.

DeLorie said he and his labor counsel talked with officials at the Ethics Commission before the trip to California to make sure what was and wasn’t acceptable. DeLorie said his attorney, based on citations provided to him by the commission, concluded anything worth more than $50 could not be accepted because it would have been a gift given to them in their capacity as public employees.

There is an exemption in the ethics law for travel that is “in the public interest.” After determining the firefighters’ appearance on the show would benefit the department’s safety message about being careful on thin ice, DeLorie approved the trip to California and filled out a disclosure statement regarding the travel money.

The rescuers were never supposed to receive any gifts and the show’s producers were made aware of that, DeLorie said. Nevertheless, DeGeneres gave them the gifts anyway.

DeLorie said he and his attorney asked the Ethics Commission if the cruise tickets could be donated to someone else, but the response they received suggested that was not an option if the tickets were donated first to the firefighters. That interpretation of the law, if correct, may present a problem for Bollerman as well.

David Giannotti, chief of the public education and communications division at the State Ethics Commission, said he could not address the Bollerman issue specifically. But he noted there are circumstances where a public employee can accept a prize worth more than $50. For example, he said, if a prize is given out as the result of a random drawing, such as a door prize at an industry symposium, the employee could keep it.

But if the prize is awarded on a subjective basis because someone is a public employee, Gianotti said, that could be a violation. He said something worth more than $50 could be donated directly to a public entity, but not to a public employee. “Where public employees have this restriction, public entities don’t,” he said.

There are some exemptions to the gift limit specifically for teachers, an acknowledgement that they often pay for classroom supplies and other items out of their own pockets. For instance, a teacher can receive up to $150 for supplies, but the donor must be anonymous. A teacher can also receive gift cards in any denomination to purchase class supplies, but the teacher has to keep receipts in case there is an inquiry.

The $25,000 check DeGeneres gave to Bollerman at the end of her appearance on the TV show raises the most flags under state ethics law. Bollerman, who was beaming and on the verge of tears during the show, told the Globe afterwards that she planned to use the money to pay for graduate courses to earn her Masters degree. But because the check was given to her directly, it’s unlikely she can keep it without running afoul of the ethics laws if it is determined that she received it because she is a teacher.

While all of the gifts from the DeGeneres show flowed from the award she received in the essay contest, the taping of the television show did incorporate camera shots of Bollerman’s school and her students, suggesting her role as a teacher played a role in those awards. The ethics laws state that “state supplies, facilities, or information not available to the general public” may not be used in the pursuit of an award or prize.

Meet the Author

Jack Sullivan

Senior Investigative Reporter, CommonWealth

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is a veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

A Boston native, Jack has lived in Massachusetts all his life. He was a major in English and history with a minor in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A father and grandfather, he lives in Plymouth with his wife, Susan.

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is a veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

A Boston native, Jack has lived in Massachusetts all his life. He was a major in English and history with a minor in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A father and grandfather, he lives in Plymouth with his wife, Susan.

DeLorie, the Wellesley fire chief, said he understands the need for ethics laws, but feels they sometimes need to be interpreted with “common sense and good judgment.” He said his firefighters – and, he suspects, Bollerman, too – could not have done anything to benefit DeGeneres or her show. The rules are there for reasons and sometimes it’s not clear why,” he said.

Giannotti, again speaking in general terms and not about Bollerman, said the law is there for a reason. “Gifts can undermine public confidence in government. It creates an appearance problem,” he said.

  • Jeff Turgeon

    I find this very interesting….”Giannotti, again speaking
    in general terms and not about Bollerman, said the law is there for a reason.
    “Gifts can undermine public confidence in government. It creates an
    appearance problem,” he said.” And yet, the folks that actually make the laws of our Commonwealth, our elected officials, are allowed to take campaign contributions. If these donations to public workers are not “free speech” by the donors, then why would donations to elected officials be considered free speech?

  • Ellen Cronin

    Seriously, CommonWealth magazine and article author Jack Sullivan? Seriously? You folks are the sole ones accusing impropriety here. Even the state official you quoted wouldn’t go there. In fact, the guy is quoted as saying there are special exceptions. No way in hell is any state official going to take $150,000 away from needy school children nor reprimand a young teacher who made it possible. To even suggest it’s possible is poor reporting.

  • shirley_kressel

    Nicole Bollerman may be under the illusion that she got this money as an award for winning an essay contest, but she should understand that she is merely being used as a publicity magnet for the UP Academy charter chain,
    which “educates some of Boston’s poorest and neediest children” – yes, only some of them, the ones that can be taught to score well on high-stakes standardized tests. UP Academy is a fast-expanding corporation whose CEO, Scott Given (out on … wait for it – “paternity leave”! How wonderful is that man!) has gotten double her prize as a bonus for taking over a Boston public school, which he promptly cleansed of the poor and needy students who would tarnish his “turn-around” score successes (see links below). He could easily have anticipated that this essay-contest-winning teacher (I simply must read that essay!) would donate the money to her school; to do otherwise
    would appear, and be, venal and exploitative of the children (which he is not afraid to appear, or be). He had to make
    the prize (funded by…. Boston taxpayers? Conservative pro-charter foundations? Some corporate advertising department?) so big that media hounds searching for warm-and-fuzzy stories would pick up the story (without looking into the facts) and bring UP Academy (fronted by their new prop, the beatified Ms. Bollerman) to national recognition for being wonderful, so wonderful, so much more wonderful than public schools, from which one can expect only dreary stories of “crumbling buildings” and “failing education” (and silly public ethics concerns). It worked. Commonwealth Magazine fell for it, as did the Boston Globe, the Ellen DeGeneris Show producers, and probably a bevy of corporate and conservative media.

    Who will give gift cards to the hundreds of thousands of public school teachers who have been, for decades, spending hundreds of dollars every year for school supplies that should have been paid for by public funds? What corporate sponsor wants to thank them for their public service in educating the citizens of America every year – and make the thanks anonymous, without a national “aren’t we wonderful, don’t we deserve even more tax breaks?” ad campaign worth millions of times the cost of these gift certificates and backpacks filled with school supplies.

    When did this country decide that our children should become tax-deductible charity causes of big corporations and the smiley-faced “philanthropic foundations” located either in their marketing departments or in the fat bank accounts of their executives? Who has produced a shred of credible evidence that the vaunted “free-market”
    model, which has failed disastrously in the private sector countless times, coming to be saved by the taxpayers and the bad old government every time, would work in public services?

    Everyone is making out on this deal – teacher Bollerman and her colleagues, who, at a charter school, are paid substantially less than public school teachers for more hours of work; Scott Given, who will use this shallow
    publicity smash to demand bigger bonuses as he further bamboozles ignorant and/or corrupt government officials and well-intentioned but uninformed parents into thinking UP Academy guarantees their kids a bright scholastic future — when in reality he’s going to throw them out if they don’t guarantee UP a bright contractual future; Ellen DeGeneris and her producers, putting out yet another heartwarming picture of the great America we all know exists out there, somewhere, in small places; and Capital One and Target, the corporate sponsors of this circus, buying customer loyalty on the cheap. Everyone is doing well — except the public school students of this country, whose schools are being systematically starved of resources – which are being diverted in stunning amounts to charter schools — while they are left with the harder-to-teach students charters exclude. Oh, and except, of course, the experienced, credentialed teachers in those public schools, who are being displaced by a cadre of cheap, quick-trained temps and volunteers, who are being cheated of their hard-won union protections, who are being evaluated and paid by the test-score (see under: “merit pay”), like old-time piece-work factory laborers, and whose dedication and professionalism made productive, educated citizens out of most Americans for our country’s centuries of world-wide renown and intellectual prominence….the teachers that Governor Charlie Baker was recently lauding for his own education, in a speech advocating for a charter school take-over.

    http://edushyster.com/?p=1014

    http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2013/01/03/debate-swirls-about-academy-record-retaining-students/5TRlJNVeJ9F0pdDmdsabjM/story.html

    http://dianeravitch.net/2014/03/03/the-rise-and-rise-of-up-academy-up-up-and-away/

    http://edushyster.com/?p=851

  • mwSomerville

    Jack…who pooped in your soup? This is the problem with the media. Nothing can ever be positive. Clearly you weren’t hugged as a child.