UPDATE: LEEF, Viper Nation to continue talks of possible merger

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Corrected Feb. 11 at 6:58 p.m.

Original Viper Nation Education Foundation data included some grants distributed to Steiner Ranch Elementary School, Four Points Middle School Canyon Ridge Middle School and Vandegrift High School as 2018 when they were actually dated September-December 2017. This has been corrected in the chart and in the body text.

Updated Feb. 7 at 11:06 p.m.

Leander ISD’s board of trustees extended the agreements with Leander ISD Educational Excellence Foundation and Viper Nation Education Foundation at its meeting Feb. 7.

Trustees voted unanimously to extend the agreements to last until current negotiations to create a single foundation are resolved. If that is not achieved, the agreements will expire June 30.

The board decided against causing the agreements to automatically end if the foundations arrive at an impasse in their discussions prior to June 30.

Original article published Feb. 6 at 5:56 p.m.

For almost a year, two nonprofits associated with Leander ISD—the Leander ISD Educational Excellence Foundation and Viper Nation Education Foundation—have been in talks combine into one.

As the process continues, the school board is expected to take action Feb. 7 on whether to extend the foundations’ agreements with the district, which otherwise expire Feb. 8. These agreements, called memoranda of understanding, acknowledge the partnerships and commitments between each nonprofit and LISD.

Four sample motions for the board of trustees are posted in the Feb. 7 meeting agenda packet. One motion would extend the current memoranda of understanding “through the resolution of or termination of the current process to achieve a sole education foundation that serves Leander ISD.” Another would do the same, but end the terms of the agreements on June 30.

The other two sample motions extend the terms of the agreements but  would “automatically terminate” them upon the conclusion of the process toward a single foundation, even if the process ends without the achievement of a single foundation. One of those two motions limits the extension to June 30 as well.

Trustees could decide to enact one of these, allow the memoranda to expire or other options, but granting extensions could allow the organizations more time to work toward creating a single education foundation.

“We’ve really for the first time … made some progress in the last month or two and I don’t think we should stop the process now,” said William Farrell, president of the Viper Nation Education Foundation, or VNEF. “The district clearly wants one [foundation], so then we’re trying to work out the details of how that one foundation would operate.”

Two district foundations

Leander ISD Educational Excellence Foundation, or LEEF, was created in 2007, according to IRS documents. LEEF supports academic initiatives throughout the district and raises funds for programs related to early literacy and college readiness as well as grants for teachers, according to the organization’s website.

Founded in 2009, VNEF focuses on STEM, leadership and entrepreneurship with grants, professional development for teachers, robotics support and resources for college and career readiness in Austin’s Four Points community within the school district, which includes the elementary and middle schools feeding into Vandegrift High School.

Conversations to combine the foundations began amid concerns that having two district nonprofits could cause inequity, with additional funding in the Four Points area. LISD Superintendent Dan Troxell said at a Nov. 8 school board meeting that having a single district foundation would “allow us to have some equity throughout our entire district” and allocate resources appropriately based on the needs of different communities within LISD.

“We believe very strongly that one foundation does a number of things for our district, including the whole concept of having one district represented by one group of citizens that represent the entire community,” Troxell said at the November meeting when the board voted to extend the foundations’ agreements to February.

In 2018, Vandegrift High School in Four Points received $37,358.28 for a variety of programs, according to data from LISD. The funds were primarily from VNEF, although LEEF contributed $4,255.00 as well.

Solely through LEEF, Vista Ridge High School in Cedar Park received $26,014.65, primarily for the INCubatoredu program, and Cedar Park, Glenn, Leander and Rouse high schools all received between $2,555-$3,055 in 2018, according to the data.

For districtwide initiatives, LEEF provided $56,500 in 2018. During the same time, VNEF contributed $10,000 for the districtwide Naviance service.

Farrell said he does not have a clear understanding of the inequality concern, stating the school district spends less per student in the Four Points area than in other areas.

On average and excluding alternative schools, LISD’s total operating expenditures were around $5,775 per student in the Four Points area, and around $6,535 and $6,757 per student in the Cedar Park/Avery Ranch and Leander areas respectively, according to 2016-17 data from the Texas Education Agency.

Memoranda of understanding 

Both LEEF and VNEF outline their commitments to the district and the district’s commitments to them in the form of memoranda of understanding.

For instance, the school district agreed to share its strategic plan, priorities and needs with both nonprofits each year, and in return, the foundations were required to align their campaigns with those goals and requirements. VNEF and LEEF must provide the district with annual reports and financial information and must follow LISD policies and procedures, according to the agreements.

The organizations receive commitments from the school district, too. LEEF gets monetary contributions from the district for the salary of its executive director. Under the agreement, the school district provides a part-time district employee to assist the executive director, as well as office space, utilities and equipment for the executive director.

VNEF is allowed use of district facilities for foundation activities and programming, and the district permits limited use of its resources and personnel time to support VNEF, according to the agreement between the two groups. VNEF executive director’s salary and office space are not parts of the agreement, unlike with LEEF.

Both agreements state the foundations will provide more to LISD than the value of the district’s contributions to them.

Jennifer Williams, president of the LEEF board, said she thinks LEEF could continue to exist without the agreement. However, if that were the case, she said LISD could refuse their donations and the foundation would lack direction from the district.

“In LEEF’s case, if you’re going to be a foundation that’s partnering with the district … it seems kind of odd not to operate with [the agreement], so if we were not to have [one], then the district would not have to recognize us as their foundation and I don’t think the LEEF board would want that,” she said.

Farrell said he was informed by the district that without the agreement in place, VNEF would no longer be able to provide its donations to the schools.

Per LISD policy, the district can accept unsolicited gifts, although the authority to do so is left up to the superintendent and board of trustees. The policy states that before accepting a gift, the superintendent must consider if the gift “would result in inequitable funding, equipment, or resources among district schools or programs” as well as other factors.

Extending conversations

Williams said she thinks the district’s board of trustees will approve an extension to the agreements because the two foundations continue to work together. Both foundations, she said, are working for the greater good of LISD.

“This is what the district has asked us to do and we’ve come together,” she said.

At the Nov. 8 meeting, Troxell said under the advice of an attorney, multiple options to create one foundation were laid out for LEEF and VNEF.

Farrell said part of figuring out how a single district foundation would operate is determining how it can serve the missions and values of the existing foundations. He said in order to create one foundation for the district, both VNEF and LEEF must dissolve. In a Dec. 17 letter to the district superintendent, Farrell stated VNEF would agree to dissolve if LEEF did the same, and suggested both organizations determine a “common vision” before legally disbanding.

Scott Rowe, who served as president of LEEF’s board from November 2017 to June 2018, said he left the board due to frustrations over the merger talks and also in order to lead a different organization. He said dissolution would be detrimental to LEEF and the proposal puts LEEF in a difficult negotiating position.

“It makes no sense to me to have a board of very smart people dissolve a district foundation to build a district foundation,” Rowe said. “To start over [sets back]what the foundation has built—the blood, sweat and tears over the last 5-10 years of getting LEEF where it is today, and the support and the connections with everybody out there.”

Aaron Johnson, president of the school district’s board of trustees, said at the November meeting that the board is grateful for the work of LEEF and VNEF and their donors.

“Neither foundation has done anything that we think is inappropriate or has driven this action, it’s simply an organizational necessity for us to unify these two foundations and we appreciate their collaboration in helping us to achieve that result,” Johnson said.

District foundations are not the only way community members donate, volunteer and support their schools. Booster clubs and parent-teacher organizations support school programs, extracurricular activities and teachers, such as the Leander High School Football Booster Club or Cedar Park Theatre Arts Booster Club. VNEF describes itself on its website as “Your Academic Booster.”

Troxell said in November that having multiple foundations, booster clubs and other groups causes complexities, such as when businesses are asked by multiple organizations for donations, creating competition.

“I think the first step in this journey […] is to get to the idea of how do we certainly recognize the incredible value the two foundations have given to this school district and how do we get them to work in harmony to one foundation,” Troxell said, “And then once that’s formed […] have some conversations with booster clubs at that point.”

Editor’s note: Courtney Samok, account executive for Community Impact Newspaper, is on the LEEF board of directors.

This story was updated shortly after publishing to include additional motions added to the Feb. 7 LISD board of trustees agenda packet.

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Abby Bora
Abby Bora started at Community Impact Newspaper in May 2017. After working as a reporter, she became editor of the Cedar Park | Leander edition in October 2018. She covers Leander ISD and city government. Bora graduated from Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I. with a bachelor’s degree in media and communications studies.
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