Powhatan couple donates $400K to local public schools

Karla Curtis announces to Pocahontas Elementary School staff that she and her husband, Bob, are donating $400,000 to the school district to be used for scholarships, programming and teacher needs.

POWHATAN – Shock and jubilation ran rampant among Powhatan County Public Schools educators Monday when a local couple announced a donation worth just over $400,000 to the school system, including $1,000 for every teacher and school counselor to use without restrictions for their classrooms and students.

Karla Curtis of Powhatan surprised the staff at all five public schools on Monday when she announced that she and her husband, Bob Curtis, founder and co-CEO of PIEtech Inc., would be reinvesting a piece of the roughly $500 million they made from the sale of their company this year into the local school system.

“We sold PIEtech and we have a bunch of money,” she said with a laugh in between visiting the schools. “I have a very nice life, so it gave us an opportunity to support the community that we live in. There are few things that are as important to this county as the public school system. It is critical for economic development. It is critical for building future citizens of this county.”

The couple is partnering with the Powhatan Education Foundation to administer the Curtis Donor Advised Fund, which will include three distinct funds that will benefit Powhatan’s students, programs and teachers.

Karla Curtis visited each of the schools to talk about the couple’s plans, accompanied by Carolyn White, president of the education foundation; Eric Jones, superintendent; and several school system administrators.

Each presentation built up to the big surprise – to show appreciation for the impact teachers have on students’ lives, Curtis and her husband will be giving $1,000 to every PCPS teacher and school counselor this school year. The only restriction on this Teacher Impact Fund is that teachers use the money in support of their classrooms or students as they see fit and counselors use it for students in their schools.

She added that they wouldn’t be required to submit a detailed accounting of expenditures.

Powhatan-based PIEtech is the creator of the MoneyGuide family of financial planning applications. The timing of the sale of PIEtech to Envestnet, a Chicago-based provider of systems for wealth management and financial wellness, means the money for this part of the donation won’t be available until later in the fall.

Curtis told teachers to keep their receipts from the start of the year and reimburse themselves when the funds become available – hopefully no later than Dec. 1.

“Classroom teachers have a very hard job, and I am not sure the general public always recognizes that," Curtis said. "So part of this is us saying to classroom teachers, we want to support you because your jobs are critically important."

Jones said that with about 320 teachers and 12 school counselors this school year, this part of the donation would add up to roughly $332,000.

Curtis also announced two other initiatives she and her husband will fund. They are setting up a $25,000 scholarship fund for Powhatan High School that will award scholarships to graduating students who have a need and have “exhibited an aptitude in a field of study and have a strong desire to complete a curriculum in that field.” The scholarships will be a minimum of $2,000 per year and are renewable for a maximum of five years, as long as the student is continuously enrolled.

One big difference for this scholarship fund is that it will not be based on GPA or test scores, Curtis said. She talked about how different she and her husband were academically – she excelled in the traditional classroom setting while her husband “was at best a C student in college” despite being "brilliant."

“He argued strongly that there are a lot of students with some hidden potential with a strong desire to do something,” she said, but added that students would not be penalized for having good grades.

She is going to work with the scholarship committee to work out more detailed criteria for the applications.

Curtis also talked about a $45,000 grant that will be split between the school district’s music program, the career and technical education (CTE) program, and the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) program. Money can be used for any activities or supplies for each of the programs at the discretion of their program coordinators.

The Curtises’ total donation is “by far by order of magnitude the biggest gift that has ever been given to the Powhatan Education Foundation, and the board is beyond excited to be a part of this initiative,” White said.

She added that the board was especially grateful that Karla Curtis didn’t want to eclipse the Powhatan Education Foundation's established giving program, the classroom innovation grants. Before Curtis made her announcement, White told all of the teachers that the foundation was doubling the maximum amount of the classroom innovation grants this year to a maximum of $3,000.

White pointed out that the Curtises’ funds have very few restrictions, while the education foundation's classroom innovation grants will continue to be a curriculum-based grant applicant process.

At each of the school visits, Jones, the schools superintendent, laughed as he joked about how hard it was to keep this generous donation a secret since June so that everyone in the school district could be equally surprised.

“I didn’t sleep last night because I was so excited about this,” Jones said Monday. “I have been excited for weeks. So it is great the day is finally here and we can make the announcement. It is great seeing the teachers’ reactions to the announcements. We have seen everything from elation to tears of joy to shock. I know it is going to take the time for the teachers to process this, but I know it means the world to them.”

Jones said when Bob and Karla Curtis approached him in June, they already had a basic idea of how they wanted to divide the three funds – “we just helped them figure out how to bring them to fruition.” He was also thrilled the couple is considering continuing their support of the school district in future years either in the same way or in new ways if they determine that is what the division needs.

“It is incredible. We work very hard and our county is blessed to have the resources that they have, but when we are talking $25,000 in student grants, that is a huge number,” Jones said. “And the money that we have for CTE, STEM and our music program is money that we are going to be able to build upon and will benefit all of our students. It’s incredible in terms of the size of it but also the impact it is going to have on students.”

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