Can anonymous cash donations be accepted by a public school committee?


There are a lot of cliches about money. “Follow the money.” “Show me the money.” “It’s all about the money.” “Money is power.” As these sayings suggest, money is often at the heart of legal, ethical and moral questions. And not in a good way, especially in the public sector.

Over the years, the pro-turf school committee members have engaged in a variety of costly financial shenanigans with taxpayer money to fund the artificial turf project and the lawsuit against Oak Bluffs. It has been my job, on behalf of the Chilmark finance committee, to follow this ongoing saga closely. And right now, the situation is worsening, and we can see dark clouds forming overhead. Islanders should be on high alert that our public high school committee is handling its fiscal duties in violation of the laws of the commonwealth of Massachusetts. 

After taxpayer funding was denied to them by the towns this spring, the pro-turf school committee members pivoted fast, and began at their July 20 public meeting to fund their ongoing turf legal expenses unlawfully. At first, they tried to roll over public funds from last year’s budget to pay this year’s legal bills. Their lawyers said no. 

But then, miraculously, at that same July meeting, it was announced that $5,000 had been found! The school had just received an anonymous $2,000 donation and a mostly anonymous $3,000 donation (a named person and his “friends”). The school committee, no questions asked, immediately accepted the anonymous donations “with gratitude.”

Although it was not mentioned at that meeting, several days later school officials confirmed that both anonymous donations were quietly dropped off at the high school in cash

Yes, you heard that right. Our high school is funding their artificial turf legal bills like a drug deal. Bags of anonymous cash dropped off secretly. Twice. 

And breaking news, we learned last week at the Sept. 11 MVRHS School Committee meeting that this may not be a “two-off.” Superintendent Smith stated at that meeting that the school’s lawyers orally advised him that anonymous cash gifts to a public regional school district are lawful to receive. He and the chair had talked to the lawyers on the phone, and they assured those members who had not been invited on the call that all is well. Committee member Robert Lionette asked for a written legal opinion to be provided to all members, but that idea was opposed by committee member Kris O’Brien, and it appears to have been tabled. 

So it is now clear that the committee plans to spend the rest of the $5,000 in anonymous cash donations to pay their lawyer going forward. They are fine with this approach as a normal means by which our high school may pay its bills.

We the public have lots of questions: Will more money start arriving by cash drop-offs? Will the whole multimillion-dollar project be funded this way? Do one or more members of the committee know the identities of the donors, but choose not to share that information with their colleagues? Did school committee member(s) participate behind the scenes to solicit or coordinate the donations, or their manner of delivery? Have there been Open Meeting Law violations? Are school committee members themselves among the secret donors? Why are people or entities funding our controversial high school project from the shadows? Is it because they are entities that are not legally permitted to donate anonymously to public schools? 

Or is it because, although among the donors permitted under the law, they are entities that Islanders would not want funding our public school projects by using their big money to drive our policy choices on controversial matters that are important to us — like protecting our drinking water? 

Islanders have no answers to any of these questions. 

Superintendent Smith and the school committee pro-turf advocates say, “Cash donations aren’t illegal. Public anonymity isn’t illegal.” Those things are true. But ignorance by the school committee members about the source of the funds it accepts and expends for our public high school is unlawful under the laws of the Commonwealth. It does not matter whether the school committee is buying books, or paying legal fees, or building a sports field — they cannot lawfully accept money from unknown benefactors. 

Here is what the law says. Massachusetts General Law Part I, Title VII, Chapter 44, Section 53A, lists three — and only three — categories of private donors allowed to give money to regional school districts: “a charitable foundation, a private corporation, or an individual” (

The best reading of the language in Sec. 53A is that a “regional school district” cannot accept money from unknown persons or entities. Put simply, the school committee cannot comply with Sec. 53A, as it is expressly required to do, if it cannot confirm for all committee members that the donors are among those three categories permitted under the law — which they have not done, and cannot do, with anonymous cash donations. 

What if, for example, the all-cash anonymous donor is a foreign government? Or organized crime? Or a drug cartel? Or a lobbyist for the turf industry? None of those donors is “a charitable foundation, a private corporation, or an individual,” as the law specifies.

Your school committee does not know or care who is funding our public school artificial turf legal bills — for a project that many, perhaps most, Islanders do not even want. Through our democratic processes, we cut off their taxpayer funding last spring, so they now plan to just take money from anyone and anywhere, no questions asked. They told us that clearly last week.

One may ask, does the law really say that “anonymous bags of cash” may not be accepted by our public school? Answer: Yes. When the plain language of a statute lists three permitted things, that means only those things are permitted. Everything else is prohibited. That is a basic tenet of statutory interpretation applied by state and federal courts throughout our country. Essentially, courts say: A legislature would not bother to list permitted things if other things are allowed. 

Admittedly, no court has yet interpreted the statutory language of Sec. 53A to say that anonymous cash is allowed, or not allowed, to be accepted by public schools. Of course, courts cannot interpret a statute until they are asked by real parties to apply a statutory provision to an actual set of facts in the real world. We cannot find a case, and the school’s lawyers have not provided a citation to one, in which the fact pattern of “bags of anonymous cash to a public school” has come before a court in the commonwealth, or anywhere else, quite frankly.

Until now. Massachusetts General Law Chapter 44, Section 59, provides a simple process for taxpayers to enforce the chapter in court. The question now is whether a taxpayer petition in superior court will be necessary to stop this school committee from funding their artificial turf project like a drug deal.

And none of us wants more litigation.


Vicki Divoll, a Chilmark resident, is a retired lawyer who spent her career in Washington, D.C., as a national security lawyer. She also taught U.S. government and the Constitution at the U.S. Naval Academy.


  1. Thank you for this clear presentation grounding in law and logic the nagging feeling that something was not right with the anonymous donations appearing magically to fund the Turf Team’s expenses, plus provide a pretext to quash critics’ voices.

  2. There will now be new regulatory review and I assure you, there will never be a plastic field on Martha’s Vineyard.

  3. Wouldn’t that law firm, by accepting funds for their legal work from the committee that facially fail the smell test, most probably are ill-gotten gains, be in contravention of the lawyers code of conduct?
    Maybe the MA Office of Bar Counsel ought to be informed?

  4. Let’s see here. As a lawyer you read a law and interpreted it. It appears the district lawyers read the law and interpret it differently than you do. It’s called the practice of law. I assume not the certainty of law because you then go on to talk about the lack of precedent. Ok. So now you disagree with another lawyer and write an opinion piece. Has the town of Chilmark raised this with the DA? Has the DA taken up the case? You keep referring to elected officials as criminals. Because you have not gotten your way you write and opinion piece that is bordering on slander because you have been unsuccessful at squashing a project you disagree with. At a minimum you as a lawyer know the frequency of these attacks form a type of harassment. Did you watch the Sept 11 school committee zoom? These same criminals accepted an anonymously donated piece of art. I listens to those meetings where the committee accepted the money. They weren’t bags of money and they were delivered in hand to a school employee from what I could tell. So while no name, an actual person handed over an envelope. Not bags as you slanderously characterize it. The constant attack on dark sinister only applies to this particular project. Is artwork dark and sinister. Are band instruments dark and sinister. These constant attacks are having a negative impact on society’s willingness to make donations at all. For some people a synthetic turf project is their feel good donation. Why is that sinister? This is gross. Please come to MVRHS with a fully funded all grass facility donation. I am sure they will accept it even if it is anonymous. This could have been done years ago but none of the haters put their money where their hate is. Negativity is winning the day.

  5. I am sure that if you, and your town, hadn’t put a “non-binding” resolution that all donations above a certain amount had to be public, then maybe the donor would have done so as you request. Why is it sooo important for you to know who anyway? The fear, and if it were me I’d be fearful too, is that they will be admonished by those who oppose the field and be harassed, them and/or their business. If anonymous meant, they aren’t revealed publicly, EVER, then we may have a different game but your town didn’t request that did they? It has been proven that the opposition to this project will do most anything to get it stopped. Just look what the chairman of the Planning Board did, he acted illegally, and it is no secret he is against the project. In addition, he has yet to put this on any meeting agenda of his board to discuss the judges decision. Which he is required to do. It is his acting illegally that forced this appeal in the first place. Why are you only pointing the finger at the school? IMO the selectboard of OB should have shut this down well before the planning board voted. They voted 2-2 to not allow a special permit, which we now know, wasn’t needed, BY LAW. They were warned by their own lawyer that this wasn’t within the jurisdiction of the planning board, but the chair ignored that advice, and here we are.

    Second, why does the editor of this newspaper make letters to the editor that are written by those who oppose the field project uncommentable? He has now done this several times, including one that was posted today. This is why people don’t trust those who oppose the project. People are writing letters that aren’t factual, or referencing materials that aren’t being used in the turf or infill. The editor won’t let us comment to correct them, is that fair and honest for a newspaper to do? Now you may understand why anonymous is the route being chosen to protect their privacy and self interests.

    • All letters in the MV Times are “uncommentable.”

      I believe the reason for this is to encourage people to share their views in a letter to the editor without having to fear being trashed by hostile commenters.

      You can write your own letter to the editor.

      I certainly have been trashed in a subsequent letter after I wrote a letter to the editor—nothing is holding you back!

      • Maybe they should because there is a lot of wrong information being posted about this project in the paper by the opposition to this project. Maybe the paper should vet the information being posted to see if it were correct before they print it. I am not playing the victim, I just want to correct the false information being printed by those who just aren’t telling the truth about THIS project. No, the school isn’t using crumb rubber so the heat issue brought up isn’t accurate the letter in this issue referenced Stamford CT, which is crumb rubber. No, the school doesn’t have to use chemicals to clean the field, other than alcohol, which is a condition of the MVC. Those are just two examples of people using wrong information to scare people into believing their side of the argument. The problem is, you can say anything against this project and not have to prove a thing to get people to believe you, but the school has to use science and law to prove their point and that costs money. So actually it isn’t the school at all that is causing the need to spend money in testing and lawyers, it is the opposition who say things that aren’t true which causes the school to respond to prove them wrong.

        • Also – let’s not lose sight of the fact that only one governmental entity has been found to have acted unlawfully, the OB planning board. That board was advised by its own counsel that a decision to deny the special permit was beyond its authority, and that it would likely be overturned by a reviewing court – they proceeded to disregard that advice. This was all reported by the Times, yet the school committee are subjected to accusations of illegal and immoral conduct for actually following the advice of their counsel. I’m still waiting for the editorial calling for accountability of the OB planning board. That would not require insinuations and unfounded allegations – just a focus on the actual actions of the board.

    • All letters to the MV Times are uncommentable. IN defense of Sam Houghton, there is no conspiracy to select opposition as uncommentable. They establish a rule long ago that Letter to the Editor are not to be commented on by posters regardless of the subject. I am for the turf by the way.

      • Ok I stand corrected, I wasn’t aware of their policy. I can accept when I am wrong, can the opposition? I’m just fed up with people who don’t know the facts and make false statements just so they can try to win the day. Once again, today a letter was written that misstated the facts.

  6. I don’t care what side of this you’re on, taking piles of cash from undisclosed, unknown sources stinks to high heaven. I don’t care if it’s legal or not. It’s slimey.

    • Just curious if you feel the same way about campaign contributions to local, state and/or national politicans ?

      • You can’t make anonymous donations to politicians. It’s illegal. It is legal to donate to super packs anonymously but it’s illegal for them to coordinate with the politicians they support.

  7. Do all anonymous donations stink to high heaven?

    Would you object to an anonymous contribution of an entire year’s high school budget plus 150% of the high estimate for a grass field? Would that be slimy and stink?
    What if it was for artificial only?
    Tougher decision?
    What about in perpetuity?
    What is your price elasticity?

  8. Right out of the Trump playbook. Sow so much malfeasance over and over again until the masses believe your nonsense. Classic fake news and this paper perpetuates this stuff. Didn’t the Superintendent and the chair sit on call with paid legal counsel and weren’t they told this was acceptable. This article is the ranting of a “I didn’t get my way by voting down the budget” fincom member. Perhaps Mr Rappaport should call up to Chilmark and give them the Counsel he is retained for and not listen to these rantings.

  9. I have to agree with Carla Cooper. Legal or not, in this small community it is just WRONG to accept donations from undisclosed donors towards one side or the other of public project. All the parents ad community members who work hard and donate a LOT to school sports and activities have a right to know who is funding a side in this fight.

  10. The author of this letter finds it necessary to advise us of her legal credentials. She sees an instance of what she is certain is illegal behavior – a financial crime perpetrated by public officials. She states unequivocally that “our public high school committee is handling its fiscal duties in violation of the laws of the commonwealth of Massachusetts”. Serious stuff. So what does she do? Does she involve the authorities? No – she decides to pen a letter to the editor. A letter fraught with innuendo and insinuations of malfeasance, which likens the conduct of public business carried out in accordance with the advise of counsel to a criminal drug deal.

    She does begrudgingly admit that the MVRSD attorney has taken a different view of the matter. Of course she spares him the reprobation that she lavishes upon his client, but she does second a call for counsel to issue a written opinion on the matter. Of course, as any attorney knows, legal opinions cost money. It’s not simply something that is jotted in an email. Who should pay for this opinion to be rendered, and where should the money come from? It’s a silly and circular argument. She disagrees with the funding of previous legal expenses, and so she insists on the incurrence of additional legal expenses even though she sees no appropriate means of funding said expenses. She issues a veiled threat of additional litigation, but makes no mention of the means of funding the district’s legal defense – assuming that she thinks they are entitled to mount one.

    The court has issued it’s decision. The actions of the OB Planning Board were not supported by the law. There should be no further legal wrangling on this issue, and no need for any legal expenses outside of the normal conduct of MVRSD business – and moving forward with the project as approved is now a normal and expected course of action.

    • It looks to me like this is an opinion article, not a letter to the editor. The author’s background credentials are written by the Times underneath the article, as is done for all guest contributors to this paper, so that readers know who the writer is. Your say-so is your allowed opinion, just as raising the valid question of legality is allowed. Don’t like it? Too bad. A $5000 cash payoff is… weird. Every hear of a bank check? Good as cash, I’m told, and a way to protect one’s anonymity.

      • Banks don’t issue anonymous bank checks. You have to have an account and it is on the bank check. They are not anonymous. Nobody dropped off 5k. More twisting of the facts. 2 donations. Go check the zoom recording. 1 of 2k was anonymous and 1 of 3k was not anonymous. I love how the facts are manipulated to tell the story of darkness. That was the goal of the author. Please ask your collective town counsels to spend your town legal lines and get the answer for yourselves and not from a retired lawyer who doesn’t do regional school committee law. If your elected school committee members acted illegally, bring them up on charges and have a recall petition and replace them. You all have proper recourse. Just do it and be done with this next chapter of story telling.

  11. We are so lucky to have expertise like Vicki’s on this island and i, for one, really appreciate the time, effort and expertise she contributes on behalf of all of us. The ball is now in the school committee’s court to either refute her comments or stop spending anonymous cash donations. Islanders deserve a public response to this editorial.

    • The author already has the answer to your question as does the entire school committee and it was discussed on September 11th in a public meeting. The author didn’t like the answer and wrote this in order to continue the onslaught of mostly false narrative around this project. Do your homework. First it was plastic…..covered by multiple conditions at MVC. Then a fear campaign about PFAS…..tested and reported on. Go read the results and not the terror campaign of those who tell stories and don’t actually speak of the actual data because it doesn’t elicit fear. Endless safety stories yet no call for stopping all island athletes from participating on these surfaces off island. Not a single writer is saying we should protect our kids and refuse to play on those fields. A town committee up in arms nearly non detectable levels of PFAS over the aquifer and they are writing grants to put a solid food waste plant over the same aquifer. Check out the EPA writings on these facilities. They are PFAS concentrators and then everyone feels good about using that compost in their gardens perpetuating the problem. Changing the use of PFAS is good. You all are chasing the wrong source.

    • The school committee already received advice from their attorney. They was addressed in public at their September 11 meeting. It’s on zoom for all to see and listen. The Author knows this. Ball is in the Author’s court to take action. She has the opportunity to pursue this through her town and the District attorney’s office. If you think they acted badly contact your select board chairs and get it on the agenda. Let’s be sure these people get punished for accepting money to finish an appeal that a judge actually ruled in their favor. Let’s get this clear. They appealed and received a favorable opinion. And they are criminals. Wow.

  12. Who pays $5000 IN CASH for anything, donation or not? Drug dealers, people paying off extortionists, tax scofflaws and scammers, and turf proponents. That’s all I can come up with. Were they all one hundred dollar bills? They’d only need 500 of them. Hope the payoff wasn’t in 20’s. Paying cash in that amount is slimy behaviour, no matter how you look at it. People with nothing to hide, hide nothing.

    • “Who pays $5000 IN CASH for anything, donation or not?”
      And who receives cash payments?
      Why, people like Senator Robert Menendez!
      Menendez is accused of taking bribes.
      “A search of Menendez’s home yielded some $100,000-worth of gold bars, as well as nearly $500,000 in hidden cash, according to prosecutors.”

      Am I the only person on Martha’s Vineyard who is curious as to the source of this cash?

    • You people have completely missed the point. Who ever made the cash donation was making a statement, that the vote by the Up-Island towns was not only pointless but had no legal bearing. He/she didn’t donate drug money, you are amazing with your innuendos. The school has every legal right to accept cash. They do it with every school event; sports events, minnesingers, plays, all cash, all anonymous. Please stop with your false claims, but then again, false claims are the only thing that the opposition has ever provided during this whole process.

    • What? Really I pay cash all the time. Just because I have it doesn’t make me a drug dealer or whatever else you associate cash purchases with. You jealous you don’t have?, I just bought a new car cash, why because it’s cheaper then financing.

      • Drop the straw man arguments.
        The problem of course isn’t with cash per se.
        The problem is the feature of cash, that it can be completely anonymous and untraceable. That is not acceptable for a public body.

        As for the School Committee’s getting advice from its attorney, that is not an official last word. It is just one opinion. The public is hearing a different opinion from an independent member of the public who has her own legal chops.

  13. Thank you Vicki. Beautifully said.

    Allow to to summarize?

    This is shady as hell and has been all along.


  14. Perhaps a math lesson is necessary. Ten $100 bills is a thousand, 50 of those is $5000 in cash.

    If five hundred $100 bills, that would be $50,000.

    Regardless, no one should be giving a public entity cash with no identification of the donor.

  15. Vicki – I appreciate the time you took to write this well thought out opinion. Regardless if it was “bags”, envelopes, or a fat wad of one dollar bills is irrelevant and the commenters that mention this detail are missing the point of your opinion piece, intentionally or unintentionally.
    You say “And none of us wants more litigation.“, but I would suggest that given the precedent this case sets, you should be looking to, at the very least, request and opinion from the court system in Massachusetts. In my opinion, this can’t possibly be above board behavior in our governmental funding. If it is above board behavior, perhaps our legislators should clarify, codified in law, that this is not how schools or any government entity should be funding their operations. Political candidates can’t do it, so why should a school board be able to do it?

    Please pursue this Vicki. You already have your arguments well outlined.

    (The author of this comment is neither a turf nor grass proponent. I learned how to play on a bare dirt lot. Screw the field, fix the school.)

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