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Orono Public Schools staffers celebrate the $1 million gift to the Orono Foundation for Education. (Photo courtesy Orono Foundation for Education)

Christmas came early for the Orono Foundation for Education and for the Orono school district.

The Orono Foundation for Education announced that they have received a $1 million gift from anonymous donors this past week.

The gift is the largest in OFE’s 20-year history and is believed to be the largest single gift from an individual to a public school in Minnesota history.

“Our intention with this gift is to transform the vision, resources and innovation in teaching excellence that dramatically improves the quality of education for every Orono student,” said the donors. “Enabling and motivating teachers and staff to innovate and develop a deeper understanding of teaching excellence which will have a direct impact on the education of thousands of students for decades.”

With the acceptance of the gift, the Foundation created the Educator Excellence Fund, Foundation chair Robin Gipson said.

“This fund will provide resources to promote teacher development and support excellence in educational innovation,” Gipson said. “The funds will be available to all academic staff - teachers, paraprofessionals, support professionals, administrators, etc. Funds may be used for teacher training, new class development, exploration of novel teaching methods, and refinement of methods to deliver high-quality education and targeted support. A portion of the resources will be available to fund educator grants. Orono staff will be encouraged to dream big and apply an innovative mindset through their grant proposals.”

The donors approached the Foundation several months ago about the $1 million gift, and said they wanted to make the large gift to honor retired Superintendent Dr. Karen Orcutt. Orcutt retired last June after 39 years working in the Orono School District, with the last 17 years as the district’s superintendent.

“Dr. Orcutt was a big proponent of investing in the Orono staff,” said the donors. “We wanted to make this gift to mark Dr. Orcutt’s retirement and her tremendous contributions to Orono Schools while also ensuring that her commitment to teaching excellence lives on.”

According to the OFE, The funds will be released over a 15-year period to ensure the Orono schools have guaranteed dollars dedicated to enhancing educators’ knowledge and skills. The input of Orono educators will be sought to determine how the funds are spent.

“The field of education is very collaborative,” Superintendent Dr. Kristine Flesher said. “As Orono educators develop and implement innovative best practices, their success stories will be shared with other districts and other educators who can follow their lead. In addition, Orono Schools plans to use some of the funds to develop online courses, including Advanced Placement (AP) summer courses. These will provide flexible scheduling opportunities for Orono’s high school students. Our community has a tradition of an excellent public school system, which benefits everyone. The investment in children will build upon this excellence for decades to come.”

Along with the announcement of the $1 million gift, the OFE released its 2020-21 Impact Report.

For the 2020-21 school year, the OFE raised $744,310, of which $282,973 or 38 percent was granted to the Orono Schools. Most of those grants were in the form of the Annual Operating Grant of $185,000. Another $50,000 was used for K-5 literacy programs while $28,850 was used for student scholarships.

The report indicated that 18 percent of the money raised was for expenses and fees while the other 44 percent of funds was held for future grants.

“OFE is honored and inspired to be chosen as stewards of such a transformational gift,” Gipson said. “The Orono Foundation for Education is grateful for the generous support it receives from the community year after year. This gift will help the district develop and deliver transformative teaching and learning methods. As a learning organization, Orono Schools is flexible, adaptable, and prepared to meet the needs of students today. By staying relevant and innovative as educators, Orono students will be better prepared for success in college and career pursuits.”

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