Category Archives: Quaker values

Groves of Sanctimony — and not only in the RC church

A.W.N. Pugin (1843) — BBC

Tax hanky-panky; the “non-refundable” deposit; unenforceable waivers


Religious and quasi-religious institutions like to tell us what is ethical and what is not. But, aside from what they say, how do they in fact behave ? That can be quite a different story, a conundrum in fact. For poor Benedict XVI — I feel that I have a special relationship to him because we were both born in the same country within a few months of one another — for this poor Pope, who has inherited a mess that is mostly not of his own making, this conundrum probably disturbs his sleep.

The Pope now finds himself in the glaring light of worldwide publicity. New revelations appear constantly, seemingly from everywhere, about Catholic pastors, Catholic bishops, Catholic cardinals even, who are said have transgressed in ways strictly forbidden by Canon Law. Obviously there is more than a bit of Schadenfreude in all this publicity, a point stressed by Catholic apologists. And equally obviously, there is a real moral problem as well.

Compared to these alleged high crimes and misdemeanors in the Catholic hierarchy, certain garden-variety hypocrisies, chicaneries, and sanctimonious practices seem hardly worth mentioning. But obviously these almost-routine practices, generally not reaching the level of spectacular crime, nevertheless need the warming sunlight of public knowledge.

Tax Hanky Panky

Here are excerpts from the website of Camp Ramah of the Berkshires, a non-profit group that is directed by a rabbi and whose office is located at the (Conservative) Jewish Theological Seminary:

Camp Improvement Fund *. An additional $500 will be added to each family’s account as an annual, voluntary, tax-deductible contribution to the Camp Improvement Fund. This is an amount essential to the development and maintenance of Camp Ramah and is included as a donation to ensure tax deductibility for your benefit. As with all similar tax-deductible contributions, these payments may qualify for your employer’s matching gift program. Please forward the appropriate form if this option is available to you.

For your benefit. Right. Under our tax laws, “no goods or services” may be provided for a “contribution” to enjoy tax deductibility. So this “voluntary” CIF fee is first listed as a “fee,” apparently part and parcel of the required payments for this camp, and is then called “voluntary.” Which is it ? Between the wink and the nod, what is the message ? The “fee” part seems to be directed to the parent, the “voluntary” to pesky IRS investigators. So what these religious guides here teach, by example, is how to speak with forked tongues.

It is of course an open secret that many non-profit groups abuse the tax laws by providing tax-deduction receipts for what in fact are goods and services that they render, but rarely is the practice so blatantly advertised, on the internet no less.

The “non-refundable deposit” and other fees for services that are not performed

• A non-refundable enrollment deposit [of $725.00] is required at the time of acceptance. Website of Friends Seminary, New York

· Children will be dismissed early from camp for attempting to harm others, leaving the cabin after curfew, attempting to run away or for disruptive behavior.
· Refunds are not issued for children who are dismissed early due to disruptive behavior.
· The Camp Director makes the final decision on early dismissals.
Website of Long Point Camp, Salvation Army

Camper Withdrawals. No tuition refunds will be made for withdrawals after the start of camp that are initiated by parents without the concurrence of camp or if a camper is sent home due to behavioral misconduct. For other withdrawals, a prorated portion of the tuition will be refunded after deducting a withdrawal fee of half the tuition. (Conservative Jewish) Camp Ramah (Berkshires) website

“Behavioral misconduct” ? Yes, obviously, that kind, the behavioral kind of misconduct needs to be punished by a religious camp. But alas, abuse of the English language is the least egregious thing here. Non-profit schools and summer camps, including those run by religious groups, often give warnings to prospective parents: generally, once fees are paid they will not be returned, or will only be partially returned, even though no services are performed by the institution for these often considerable sums of money. The groups also frequently demand sizable deposits before enrollment, often with a warning that such deposits are non-refundable, or even “not refundable under any circumstances.”

What is disturbing about these practices is that no attempt is made to relate these considerable sums to actual damages that may have been incurred by the institutions. Restitution of damages that are caused by early withdrawal, etc., would be rational demands and would have a strong basis in law. But a refusal to return deposits when there are no actual damages, or when such damages are smaller than the sums withheld, such refusal is illegal, and no agreement that a parent may have signed to that effect is enforceable. Parents should always demand a return of any such fees; if they do, they will regularly be vindicated in the courts.

Here are two cases that illustrate how courts have dealt with the issue:

Gunderson v Park West Montessori

Pacheco v Scoblionko

Obviously the many lawyers associated with these religious groups know very well — the legal issue is beyond dispute — that these practices are illegal, and that, if brought before the courts, they will lose. So why do they persist in these unconscionable demands ?

Unenforceable waivers

I hereby give permission for this youth to attend and participate in
___________________________________. I have familiarized myself with the expected activities and understand the possible risk involved. Permission is also given for the person named above to ride in any vehicle designated by the adult in charge during this event. If a problem occurs I assume all transportation cost for my young person. I understand that the participant is expected to obey the general guidelines for behavior: that the instructions of the adult(s) in charge must be respected and obeyed and that NO alcohol, illegal drugs or sexual misconduct will be permitted at this event. I will take no civil or legal action against the adult(s) in charge of this event. Website of Episcopal Diocese, Western New York

Camps and schools, soccer teams, all kinds of “youth-serving” organizations, both religious and secular, regularly demand that parents sign waivers to release them from their legal responsibilities in negligence cases. Such waivers are proper and enforceable in the case of adults but not in the case of minors. Professors Richard B. Malamud and John Karayan cite the legal doctrine as follows: “Minors can waive nothing. In the law they are helpless, so much so that their representatives can waive nothing for them.” As their article makes clear, the courts will not honor such waivers, since parents do not have the power to grant them.

So why, knowing that the courts will not enforce them, do the lawyers of these groups — secular as well as religious — persist in demanding them from parents as a condition for their children’s participation in recreational pursuits ? Do these lawyers act in good faith ? Do they, in fact, practice the integrity that their groups preach ?

Still more groves of sanctimony:

Sidwell Friends School

Jewish philanthropy

New Israel Fund

Sidwell Does So Help Public School Kids

In my “Modest Proposal for the Sidwell Friends School” (see my blog of November 22), I wrote, among other things

At least some of Sidwell’s resources could be made available to all students in the District. Perhaps there could be classes in art appreciation, or college-entrance preparation, or music, or whatever, free of charge to all children. Perhaps the STO funds could be used for these services.

I have now had the chance to talk with Mr. Ellis Turner, the Associate Head of the School, and learned that Sidwell has a number of specific programs to help children in Washington’s public schools. For example, Sidwell has a relationship with the (public) Brightwood Elementary School to help in a “lap reading” program. On the high school level, it has a relationship with the (public) Duke Ellington School, which, among other things, provides scholarships for math students. And these are only two examples of programs in which Sidwell cooperates with public schools.

Bravo Sidwell !

African Americans at Sidwell Friends

I have now had word from Ellis Turner, the Associate Head of Sidwell Friends School, with further information on the racial composition of the school. He reports that 12.8% of his students are African-American. But when we compare this percentage with US Census figures for the District of Columbia, where 55.4% of the population is Black, we can see that African Americans at Sidwell are not doing well — they have less than a quarter of what their share would be if the student body were representative of the District.

Mr. Turner also reports that a further 13.2% of the student body reports itself as “multi-racial” (the Census figure is 1.5% for multi-racial in the District). The significance of this figure is not clear to me, and, unlike Mr. Turner, I cannot see that it mitigates the very low African American presence at the school.

Moreover, given this low African American presence, I must repeat that the only figure published by the school for “students of color” on its website — 39% — is misleading.

Finally, Mr. Turner has taken me to task for my suggestions that Sidwell share some of its resources with the public. I have made these suggestions for two reasons: 1) Like all non-profits, Sidwell is the recipient of significant public financial aid by way of tax benefits; and 2), more important, such sharing is required by the professed values of the school. Here are Mr. Turner’s comments:

Further, you make an erroneous assumption in stating that we do not
“share some of your resources with the public, especially with those
children who have no hope of ever attending your school.” We have many programs and co-sponsored activities which do just that.

Please investigate before you publish.

I have invited Mr. Turner to let me have details on these programs and co-sponsored activities, and I will put them on my blog as soon as I receive them. It would indeed be good if there could be a public discussion of what SFS does to share its bounties.

Three Athletic Fields, Five Tennis Courts, and a Six-Lane Track

Facilities on the fifteen-acre Wisconsin Avenue campus … include the Earl G. Harrison, Jr. Upper School Building; the Middle School Building; Kogod Center for the Arts; Richard Walter Goldman Memorial Library; Zartman House … three athletic fields including one with all-weather turf surface; five tennis courts; and a six-lane track.

The five-acre Edgemoor Lane campus in Bethesda includes the Manor House … and athletic fields and two playground areas with climbing equipment.

So who wouldn’t want to go to Sidwell Friends School in Washington, the new center of learning for the Obama girls ? Can you imagine, three athletic fields, and all those tennis courts, and six whole lanes of track ? Or rather, who couldn’t go …

For starters, those not judged “academically talented” cannot go. The school says as much. Moreover, there is a requirement to submit to intelligence tests as part of the application process: the WPPSI, the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence for the youngest, then the WISC (Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children), and then on to the SSAT, etc. etc. Sidwell demands (conventionally defined) intelligence and rejects those who do not perform well on standard tests. What of the “Quaker values” of the school, proclaimed on its website, that would require a more egalitarian approach ?

The Quaker belief that there is “that of God” in each of us shapes everything we do at Sidwell Friends School. It inspires us to show kindness and respect toward one another. It motivates us to recognize and nurture each person’s unique gifts. It teaches us to apply our talents in service to others and to work courageously for peace.

So there is a disjunction between what is professed (egalitarianism) and what is practiced.

The (in my view) immoral notion that power and the good things of the world should be distributed unevenly to those judged to have “merit” — i.e. the advocacy of a “meritocracy” — was savagely satirized by the most profound sociologist I ever met, the late Michael Young, in his widely quoted but rarely appreciated “The Rise of the Meritocracy,” 1958. Forty three years later he revisited the topic in an op-ed piece, Down With Meritocracy.”

Back to the Sidwell Friends School admissions. Doing well on conventional tests is a hurdle, but, so it would seem, is money. It costs around $30,000 in tuition and fees, and even those who have benefited from financial aid, roughly a third of the student body, still pay an average of $10,000 per annum.

Finally we come to the problem of the race of the students. Does it matter ? Well, according to the professed “Quaker values” all races should have equal access to all those athletic fields and tennis courts. The school prides itself on its “diversity,” and has in fact appointed a number of “diversity coordinators” (at least one of whom has a Ph.D.). But in fact the school equivocates more than a little on how racially diverse it is.

We are told on its website that “39% of the student body [2008-9] are students of color.” “Of color” is not a census term, so it’s a little difficult to evaluate exactly what it means. We do know that the US Census reports the current population of D.C. as being 34.5% White, and 63.6% as belonging to other races. So, as a first approximation, we know that a white child has almost twice the chance (1.76 times) of going to Sidwell as someone “of color.”

But what exactly does “of color” mean in the Sidwell context ? The Census categories are white, black (African American), Asian, and “other races.” Now there is a world of difference, from the point of view of educational opportunities, between African Americans on the one hand and Asians on the other. I would suspect that Sidwell’s “students of color” include Asians and children of diplomats, among others. To know just what Sidwell’s profession of diversity means in practice, we would need to know the percentage of African Americans in its student body. I have written to Sidwell’s administration and my inquiry was duly acknowledged, but I have not yet received the figures. If and when I do, I will report them here.

A Modest Proposal for the Sidwell Friends School

The Sidwell Friends School in Washington is in the news: once more, important and powerful people are sending their children there. It is by all accounts an excellent school. It has the resources to assure the best in teachers, in equipment, in curriculum, and in caring parents. In all these areas Sidwell, like other such private schools in the District, stands in sharp contrast to the public schools of the nation’s capital. These are struggling, and, the affluent and influential having deserted them, are now ghettos for the non-white and non-privileged.

Like other non-profit institutions, Sidwell would be exempt from local taxes, and contributions to Sidwell would be deductible from income taxes. So taxpayers, including the poor who cannot afford to send their children there, are nevertheless asked to pay for some of its costs.

But many of Sidwell’s parents are on record for improving the lives of the poor. This is certainly true of the powerful politicians that are now preparing to send their little ones to Sidwell in the coming year. Sidwell’s own Board of Trustees has voiced similar sentiments:

We cultivate in all members of our community high personal expectations and integrity, respect for consensus, and an understanding of how diversity enriches us, why stewardship of the natural world matters and why service to others enhances life

It isn’t cheap to go to Sidwell, in fact it’s downright expensive. Tuition and fees come to over $30,000 per child per year (with twenty-two percent of the student body receiving some degree of financial aid). At these prices, “service to others” means, primarily, others who are well off.

And here is another disquieting thing about the Sidwell philosophy:

We seek academically talented students of diverse cultural, racial, religious and economic backgrounds.

Those who are not “academically talented,” whatever that term may mean, what are those students, chopped liver ? Is that the meaning of the “Quaker way” that is so proudly touted by Sidwell ?

In other words, there is a bit, more than a bit, of a disjunction between the high-minded sentiments of parents and Board on the one hand, and the elitist nature of the program on the other. It doesn’t look good.

But wait… this blog has some solutions.

Sidwell and its parents have tremendous resources that they could make available, to some extent at least, to that vast majority of District children who have no hope of ever becoming Sidwell students. Here are some ideas, submitted with all the humility for which this blog has become justly famous:

● Sidwell parents could be asked to make financial contributions to enrichment programs at the public schools. Whenever a Sidwell parent makes a tuition payment, a “Service to Others” (STO) surcharge could be added.

● At least some of Sidwell’s resources could be made available to all students in the District. Perhaps there could be classes in art appreciation, or college-entrance preparation, or music, or whatever, free of charge to all children. Perhaps the STO funds could be used for these services.

● Some of Sidwell’s parents command considerable venues on their own. The White House itself will soon be one. Perhaps such facilities could be used for regular enrichment programs for all of the District’s children.

P.S.: How many of the Sidwell folk can be found in this part of Washington ?