It’s Not Always So Great for Schools to Be Gifted


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.

When the boxes arrived last year, warehouse manager Larry Ponce and his staff eagerly opened them but 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 write-off. And at least one turns around and resells the stuff to get that really useful commodity--cold cash.


Donations to Southern California schools in the last few years have included yards of dirty, used carpet, moldy lawn furniture and--educators shudder to even mention this--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 goods they deem useless.

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 gifts of technology, to make sure 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--which 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 into school coffers. Officials don’t know how much they made off the donated bounty, because most of what was sold at the auction was surplus district property, such as old school buses.


Mostly, the district tries to fend off a lot of unwanted stuff in the first place, said Sharon Good, assistant principal of Marian Bergeson Elementary School in Laguna Niguel.

Perhaps the most dreaded donation is the National Geographic--the magazine that tends to pile up in subscribers’ garages on the theory “that they will come in handy someday.”

“They are the bane of everyone’s existence,” said Peter Cole, principal of San Marino Elementary School in Buena Park.

“Everyone in the world hates to throw away a National Geographic,” said Andrew Fisher, principal of Panorama Elementary School in the Orange Unified School District. Instead, they donate them to schools.

Still, you never know what might prove useful in a classroom.

Aiko Moriyama, director of Partnerships and Adopt-A-School for the Los Angeles Unified School District, has a squad of recruits who collect tennis balls from the fastidious players who use them only once.

They’re for not gym classes. Teachers cut them open and slide them over the legs of chairs so they won’t hear that horrible screech made by 30 kids lurching out of their seats when the bell rings.


Lots of businesses call the giant L.A. Unified with free offerings, and they usually end up speaking to Moriyama. She’ll do her best to find a home for any item. That’s how regular deliveries of used lumber from Fox Studio’s sets end up in the district’s wood shop classes.

Some Orange County schools have found educational uses for 200 cubic feet of plastic foam, fish tanks whose former inmates were overfed by zealous children and even broken weightlifting equipment.

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

Over the last 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 given new life to old vacuum cleaners, exercise bikes, saws and golf clubs as classroom equipment. “We’ve gotten just about everything but the kitchen sink,” Eliot said. “I’m still waiting for that kitchen sink.”

You Never Know What a Teacher Can Do

Administrators have learned never to underestimate the ingenuity of a teacher. Indeed, some have become recycling experts who convert their classrooms into after-hours chop shops for old computer hardware.

“Those Apple IIs, they’re like Model T Fords,” said Cole. Many of his teachers, he said, can expertly strip a donated Apple--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.”

L.A. Unified won’t accept any computer that doesn’t have a Pentium chip, and some schools are even pickier, specifying a Pentium II. The challenges of networking other machines and making them compatible are too great.

Many educators said they are grateful--even for the offer of an old carnival dunk tank to the Placentia-Yorba Linda district (politely refused).

But some school officials expressed dismay about people who view schools as a convenient repository for old junk.

“It’s sort of sad, the people that take advantage of us,” said Ponce, who handles donations for the Newport-Mesa Unified School District. “On the one hand, you want to be grateful, but on the other hand, we don’t use a lot of it.”


Times staff writer Doug Smith contributed to this story.