Carroll elementary's PTA puzzled by 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.

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 with 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 of the 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 was 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 was unprecedented, so we're all feeling betrayed," she said.

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 the i's and crossing the 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.

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