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Christmas gift cards for school teachers could amount to "bribery," Espoo says

The chair of a local parents' association said he wonders how giving a single, pre-paid gift card to an "underpaid" teacher could be considered illegal.

Kuvassa kirjekuoresta pilkistävä lahjakortti.
File illustration of gift card. Image: Kreeta-Maria Kivioja / Yle

The city of Espoo has notified parents of kids in schools and day care centres that they cannot give communal, pre-paid gift cards to teachers for Christmas because they could be considered forms of bribery.

In a message sent on the teacher-parent communication system Wilma, city officials recommended that kids should spend a small amount on gifts for their teachers, because larger presents could be considered illegal.

If parents help pupils to make a collection towards a common gift, the message said they should only spend between one to three euros apiece towards the effort.

Henrik Ramm-Schmidt, the chair of the parents' association at the Swedish-speaking Finnoo elementary school in Espoo, said he was stunned by the message.

"Personally, and as chair of the parent group, I think the policy is a bit much. There wasn't even a justification given for such an austere position," he said.

"I'm comparing this to Christmas gifts given in the private sector and if the city says one to three euros is the maximum, it's quite far from what tax authorities consider being [excessive]," Ramm-Schmidt said.

"If a school class does not decide to collect money for common gift, then one to three euros for a [single] present is quite little. I would be surprised if one gift from all of the class to the teacher - who has done a good job and is likely underpaid - could be considered a bribe," he said.

He said that he'd like to be able to give presents of more value to his children's teacher, saying that the total of a common gift could be around 50-100 euros.

"Almost every year my kids' classes have raised money to give common gifts, where each child paid between four to five euros. Quite often they've been gift cards. And parents think that's the best [solution]," Ramm-Schmidt said.

Illegal gifts

However, according to the city's missive on the matter, gift cards are not good presents, but rather are against the law.

The Wilma message to parents said that teachers and day care workers may not accept monetary gifts in the form of cash or gift cards, saying that doing so would be a breach of the city's directives on official hospitality.

The directives state that it's illegal for city workers to accept money for participating in activities that are part of their job descriptions and that gift cards are considered a form of money.

The city's position is that the hospitality directives safeguard the independence of city employees' work and to ensure that they do not accept bribes.

"Everyone should be equal"

The head of Espoo's Swedish-language education department, Barbro Högström, said that the city sent out the message about teachers' gifts because the matter became "relevant" recently as colleagues had brought up the topic.

"It came up in various discussions. We have discussed different ways we can support families that are less well-to-do," she said.

"We wanted to remind employees about the guidelines, which have been in place for several years now, and thought it would be a good idea to tell parents about them as well. Municipal laws mention that everyone should be treated equally," Högström added.

She said that there are other ways of acknowledging and appreciating someone besides giving material gifts, saying that people can do so outside special holidays, as well.

"I think we all should make daily life pleasant for one another. Every day, not just on Christmas and at the end of the school year," Högström said.

No such rules in Helsinki, Vantaa

Unlike Espoo, the nearby cities of Helsinki and Vantaa do not have similar guidelines regarding giving gifts to teachers and day care workers.

However, Helsinki's Swedish-language education chief, Niclas Grönholm, said the city would prefer that any gifts given to those employees remain small.

He said teachers should be the ones responsible for knowing what kind of gifts are reasonable to accept.

Anders Vikström, the head of Swedish-language education in Vantaa, said he had never even thought about the matter.

"But it's good to have boundaries so there's no pressure on parents to buy a better gift than their neighbour," he said.

News of Espoo's message about teacher gifts was first reported by Vantaa-based local newspaper Länsiväylä.

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