It's hardly surprising anymore when we learn of the next abuse of donor intent by a university. (What's more surprising than universities ignoring intent is that donors keep making enormous gifts to universities!) It is surprising, however, to see this phenomenon trickling down to the high school level.
Anthony and Barbara Scarpo are suing the Academy of the Holy Names in Tampa Bay, Florida. They object to the school's failure to deliver a Catholic education and are thus suing for the return of the $240,000 they have paid toward a $1.35 million pledge and for their recent tuition payments to be donated to a Catholic charity of their choosing.
This is an interesting donor intent case—not least because the Academy's lawyer, Gregory Hearing, already threatened a counterclaim that would require the Scarpos to fulfill their pledge. First of all, Rebecca Richards recently reported in these pages about the poor legal protection of donor intent. It's not obvious that donors have much recourse over the use of their funds once they are donated.
But what's more interesting is that the Scarpos pledge was made toward a capital campaign. The school announced in 2017 that the "gift will go towards both the Academy’s facilities master plan and its endowment." But the Scarpo's suit is not that the gift was not used for a precise or explicit purpose related to the capital campaign. Rather, the lawsuit alleges that the school has strayed from Catholic teaching: they are failing to "deliver on a promise," the Scarpos' lawyer wrote.
Hearing, the school's lawyer, contends that this suit is nothing more than "attention-seeking," and says that getting courts involved in determining "whether the substance of matters taught by a Catholic school are consistent with a Catholic education would . . . violate the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution." Despite being a strange interpretation of the Establishment Clause, Hearing's comment gets to the heart of the matter: the lawsuit asks the court to weigh in on the religious consistency or authenticity of a school's curriculum and culture.
That seems like a difficult case, and Hearing does sound like he's onto something: with "wokeness" and "cancel culture" so much in the news these days, the Scarpos may indeed simply be trying to draw attention to the situation at the Academy.
It's not obvious that such attention-seeking today is a bad idea.