Jason Cowan
The Union Democrat

A $3,000 donation from a cannabis farm to a nonprofit that supports a small elementary school in Calaveras County has presented something of an ethical dilemma.

Should an elementary school take money — even indirectly — from a business that grows pot?

Calaveras Unified School District Superintendent Mark Campbell, who is also the principal of the school, Rail Road Flat Elementary, said yes, as long as the money goes through a middleman.

Campbell said the donation from Millerrail Farms in Rail Road Flat earlier this month went to the Friends of the Rail Road Flat School, a nonprofit organization.

“They receive donations from a wide variety of sources,” Campbell said. “In their pool of donations coming from multiple sources not just affiliated with cannabis issues, when they donate to the school, they’re donating to the school from their budget overall. … It isn’t as if the school is receiving resources from a cannabis cultivation organization.”

With an enrollment of 69 students, the school is among the smallest in Calaveras County and has repeatedly been threatened with closure. It is in the second year of a three year moratorium on any attempt to shut it down.

Rail Road Flat Elementary has seen an increase of 19 students between last school year and this school year, which Rochelle Sweet, president of the organization, said could be caused by growers who have moved to the area and enrolled their children.

Campbell said cannabis growers might want to donate to the school directly, but he would turn that money down. It would be inappropriate for the school to receive donations directly from a cannabis group just as if it would not be OK to receive gifts from alcohol companies, he said.

The predicament is something many school districts in Calaveras may be unfamiliar with since cannabis cultivation was permitted in May.

“If we’re on a drug- or alcohol-free campus, it would be disingenuous to accept from Budweiser, Coors or a cannabis farm,” Campbell said.

Campbell said district officials will have to discuss the situation moving forward. He said he would rather craft a policy regarding the issue “sooner rather than later” but said it is a topic they’ll take slowly.

“There are more questions than answers,” Campbell said. We have to be very cautious.”

The gift was a result of something genuinely good and selfless, many associated with the nonprofit have said.

The contribution makes up 15 percent of the organization’s $20,000 annual budget.

Autumn Andahl, a member of the organization, said the donation will help fund preschool programs that have been closed this year as the group searches for a teacher. She said they’ve had inquiries from a few individuals, but no one has applied. The money will also go to music programs.

“They put a portion of it toward a music fundraiser we did Saturday,” Andahl said.

Carla Miller, owner of the farm than provided the contribution, said her three grown children and a granddaughter, who is currently in Calaveras High School, all went to Rail Road Flat Elementary School from kindergarten through sixth grade.

“It’s real sentimental to me,” Miller said. “I want to give back to my community.”

Miller, who said they will also provide gift stockings for 86 residents at Mark Twain Convalescent Hospital, wanted to challenge others to give back to the community.

“We love our little town and want it to prosper,” Miller said.

“We think it is a wonderful thing that these folks donated this money to us and hope that it encourages others to do so as well,” Sweet said in an email. “That is our hope and our intention, to encourage the others to do so, to let them know we are happy to accept the donations and that we do need the funds.”

The donation from Millerrail Farms is not the first time the Friends of the Rail Road Flat School has accepted a donation from a cannabis grower. In the past two years they’ve received contributions from the Calaveras Cannabis Alliance.

Though the gift could be considered controversial in Calaveras County where the community has been divided since marijuana cultivation was permitted, Sweet said everything about the gift was legitimate. The cannabis business has been approved by the county through a temporary ordinance.

“It’s a business,” Sweet said. “Just like one business donating to another in town, I really do not see a problem with it.”