School's PTA puzzles over missing funds

$60,000 gone

parents, officials want answers


July 18, 2002|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

A middle school PTA volunteer in Utah offered to drop off the $1,700 raised at a book fair but pocketed the money instead of going to the bank.

An elementary school PTA president in Nebraska stole more than $3,000 when she couldn't keep up with car payments. A PTA treasurer in California embezzled $30,000 to help pay family medical bills.

It's not unheard of for someone to abscond with the money raised by selling gift-wrap, pizza kits and candy bars to pay for computer labs, outdoor bleachers and playgrounds. But it's not every day that the losses reach $60,000 - the amount that's missing from the Hampstead Elementary School PTA's account.

"It does happen when you have 26,000 local [PTA] units in the United States, U.S. Virgin Islands and the Department of Defense schools in Europe and the Pacific," said Ardith Stansell, controller of the Chicago-based National PTA.

"Most of the calls I get are when people think something's missing and it's usually only a few hundred dollars," she said. "So if this is substantiated, it would be the largest I know of."

Although Carroll County authorities have filed no charges in the Hampstead case, they are focusing on one person with ties to the school's PTA, police and school officials said Tuesday.

Hampstead Police Officer Jeffrey Calafos said yesterday that he is investigating the case, digging up bank records and comparing what the PTA's account was supposed to have and what is left.

"We're trying to come up with a final number of what's missing," he said. "There's a lot of paperwork and a lot of numbers flying around."

Suspicions about the PTA's finances surfaced in the middle of last month when Hampstead Elementary Principal Monica Smith was preparing a purchase order for a $28,000 playground that the PTA was buying for the school. "It did not appear that the money was there," she said. "Questions were asked and red flags went up."

The playground fund - for which children had sold candles, participated in runathons, collected pennies and given up their ice cream money, Smith said - was short $1,752.14.

More troubling was the disappearance of money the Hampstead PTA had raised toward the development of a wireless computer lab. The group pledged two years ago to raise $10,000 annually for three years.

"At the end of this past school year, I was supposed to have another $10,000 for the computer lab, which I knew had been raised," Smith said. "To date, $20,000 had been collected [for the lab] and that money was nowhere to be found."

The total dollar figure attached to questionable transactions over a two-year period grew to $60,000, and the investigation was handed over to Hampstead police.

"When I had to tell the people who chaired each of our fund-raising committees, the looks on their faces [were] very similar to that of death," Smith said. "There was shock, sadness and now when I talk to them, they're angry and they have every right to be angry.

"The energy, commitment and collaboration of all these people working together to raise money for our school [were] unprecedented, so we're all feeling betrayed," she said. "But we also refused to let the actions of one individual deter us from raising money in the future."

Smith expects to send a letter today to parents of Hampstead Elementary pupils.

Safeguards are in place to protect PTAs, whose members often are more focused on finding ways to improve their children's schools than dotting I's and crossing T's of monthly PTA bank statements.

State and national PTA guidelines call for local chapters to conduct financial audits every year or two, and require that two chapter officers sign each check - a condition that local PTA officials acknowledge few schools follow and that financial institutions say they have been unable to meet in recent years.

Gayle Stark, vice president of corporate communications for Allfirst Bank - where the Hampstead PTA had its account - said it has been at least four years since the bank could honor requests to require more than one signature to pay money from an account.

Rosemary Reginaldi was the Hampstead PTA's treasurer from 1996 to 2000. When she took over, the group's books had never been audited, she said.

"I had a lot of questions about things and I was told, `Nobody's going to ask you too many questions because they don't want to know the details,' " she said. "The financial end is the part that people are not comfortable with and knowledgeable about, and it overwhelms them."

An audit completed in 2000 revealed that the PTA's finances were clean and in order, said Jean Wasmer, immediate past president of the Carroll Council of PTAs and a member of the three-person team that conducted the review.

School and PTA officials would not say who was elected PTA treasurer after Reginaldi, and Hampstead Elementary is one of three schools in the county without a Web site, which often list PTA officers.

Claire Kwiatkowski, new president of the Council of PTAs, said new guidelines likely would be issued.

"It makes you wonder how many other people are having these types of problems and don't know it because there has not been enough accountability," she said. "Once we figure out what happened at Hampstead, it will put the fear of God in our other PTAs and PTOs and they'll have to go back and check their books and make sure they have them in order."

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