The uplifting story of a Dorchester school teacher who donated the $150,000 she won in a essay contest to her school, leading to praise and a large personal check from TV’s Ellen DeGeneres for her generosity, may be facing a state ethics conflict.
Nicole Bollerman, a third-grade teacher at UP Academy Dorchester, made news in December when she donated all of the prize money from Capital One’s Wish For Others campaign, and its essay contest, to the charter school.
“We are very proud of Nikki and believe she exhibited a level of selflessness that few of us could match,” said Scott Given, founder and chief executive of UP Education Network, which runs UP Academy, in an e-mail on Friday.
After donating her winnings to the school and its young students, Bollerman was invited onto the “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” last week, where DeGeneres called her an amazing woman and presented her with a check for $25,000.
DeGeneres also gave each student at UP Academy, which is located in the Bowdoin- Geneva section, a backpack with school supplies and a $100 Target gift card. Each of the 70 teachers at the school received a $500 Target gift card for school supplies that the teachers would normally buy out of pocket.
But a CommonWealth magazine article Thursday raised concerns that almost all of the cash gifts may be in violation of state ethics laws. Even the original $150,000 prize could be up in the air.
Massachusetts general laws limit gifts given to municipal employees to $50 or less. Charter school teachers, like Bollerman, are considered public employees and subject to the ethics laws.
A spokesman for the State Ethics Commission could not be reached for comment Friday night.
Bollerman also could not be reached.
Bollerman’s situation is similar to one in January 2014, in which four Wellesley firefighters who saved a dog from a frozen pond were being presented cruise ship tickets by DeGeneres on her show. But the four had to decline the Caribbean cruises because of the ethics regulation.
They were prohibited because they were acting as firefighters, not individuals, when they saved the dog.
DeGeneres’s agent did not return requests for comment Friday night.
The main issue in the Bollerman case is whether she was awarded the gifts as a school teacher, or as a private individual.
In the essay contest, Bollerman wrote: “I’m a third-grade teacher in a low-income, high-risk elementary school in Boston, MA. My #wish for others is that my voracious, adorable, hard-working, loving scholars all leave for their December break with a book in their hand.”
The contest sponsor selected Bollerman as one of the grand prize winners, sending books to all of her students and giving her $150,000. She promptly donated it to the school, calling it “the right thing to do.”
Given believes the gifts are in compliance with state ethics laws.
“When she first received word of her prize her immediate thought was to give back to her students and school,” he said.
“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.”
In advocating for Bollerman to keep her winnings, a UP official cited a 1982 Ethics Commission decision that ruled that a state employee, who was part of a branch of the Judiciary, could keep $500 won in a contest entered “on your own time and at your cost.”
That employee did not have any interaction with the contest sponsors in their official duties, and the commission judged that the award did not constitute a conflict of interest that would disallow the prize.
Jennifer Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org