Donated materials

A local laboratory is relocating, and the company is offering to donate materials and equipment to our high school. Our principal says this looks like a good deal, but we science teachers are a little cautious. What precautions should we take?
—Marcial, Reno, Nevada

On it’s face, this may seem like a great offer. What science teacher wouldn’t want free materials? Your principal is probably thinking of the cliché: Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. But there’s another old saying that may apply: If something looks too good to be true, it probably is.
First, find out if your district has a policy or guidelines on accepting donated materials. If you accept things, sight unseen, you may get “leftovers” the company doesn’t want to move. They may be well intentioned, but I’d still ask for an inventory (or, better yet, a chance to check out the gifts onsite) with the right to refuse anything that is not in working order, not useful in a school setting, or potentially hazardous.

Be cautious when accepting technology donations. Ask your district technology coordinator to determine if computers and peripherals are in working order and compatible with the district specifications. The school will have to assume the costs of upgrades and software—if the computers are several years old, it might not be worth the time and expense to update them. In addition, the school would be responsible for disposing of any unusable equipment (I’m speaking from personal experience).
Regarding any chemicals that might be on the list, follow the advice in NSTA’s Inquiring Safely: A Guide for Middle School Teachers:

To save yourself from liability, responsibility, and a lot of expensive and unrewarding work, never accept gifts of donations of chemicals from well-meaning parents, upper-grade teachers, business and industry, or anyone else. You will not have the appropriate MSDS [material safety data sheet] documents, and you cannot be certain of the age, purity, and prior storage conditions of chemicals that are not ordered and received directly from a reliable science supply house. Some donors even make “gifts” only to rid themselves of the responsibility of hazardous waste disposal. Some materials may not be subject to regulations when you first accept them, but may be declared hazardous after you have accepted them. The responsibility and cost for hazardous waste disposal becomes yours. (p. 29)

On the other hand, you may find some gems—microscopes, glassware, trays, balances, hot plates, probeware, field equipment, lab furniture—that will enhance your basic lab inventory. Don’t forget the needs of your colleagues at the middle and elementary levels, too. You just may find a specialized piece of equipment that will help advanced students in their research projects. Whatever you accept should be added to your inventory, stored securely, and, in the case of equipment, relabeled as school property.
If you do accept any donations, a thank-you note on school letterhead to the lab and a notice on the school website or newsletter would be appropriate. Include a few photos showing how the materials or equipment are being used. For your own records, note the reasons for declining any items in case there are any questions from the community as to why you passed up some of these “gifts.”
If your budget is tight and you want to find deals on materials, check to see if your municipality, county, or state has a warehouse or surplus program as part of its general services agency. These purchasing programs—open to schools, nonprofit agencies, community organizations, and (sometimes) individuals—are a bargain hunter’s paradise. My colleagues and I visited our state warehouse when we heard a hospital closed down. We purchased boxes of unopened test tubes, beakers, disposable gloves, and other brand new lab materials for a fraction of the catalog price. We found bargains on a used desk and filing cabinets for the lab storage room, too. And we had the chance to inspect everything before finalizing our purchase.

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