No lack of questions on missing PTA funds

Hampstead: School officials and parents are shocked and angry at the loss of $62,505, but they say it won't stop their efforts to help pupils.

July 29, 2002|By Childs Walker and Mary Gail Hare | Childs Walker and Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

He handled the PTA's money as the organization hummed along on fund-raising drives for a new playground and a batch of wireless computers. He shared his professional expertise as a banker with fourth- and fifth-graders, organizing a savings program to show them real-world methods of managing money. John N. Biggs Jr. even planted trees around Hampstead Elementary School.

"He would attend all of the field trips, and whenever a teacher needed someone to do something, he was there," said Monica Smith, principal at the school, which Biggs' two children attended. "He was a supportive parent."

Affable in his industriousness, Biggs, 40, seemed the perfect PTA treasurer.

Until tens of thousands of dollars were found to be missing from the PTA's bank account.

Biggs has been charged with more than three dozen counts of theft and has admitted to taking the money, according to charging documents.

As Biggs awaits trial, parents, school administrators and residents of the Hampstead area of Carroll County are trying to understand why anyone would steal from their children. They are surprised and angry. But they are determined to prevent the scandal from derailing their efforts on behalf of the pupils.

"The school community feels hurt, betrayed, like we have had the wind taken out of our sails," said Rosemary Reginaldi, the PTA treasurer who preceded Biggs. "But the school still has 600-plus children there, and it still needs so much."

The amount believed to have been stolen - $62,505 - stunned national PTA officials. They said it would be the largest theft from a PTA organization. And in Hampstead, a town of 5,000 where speeding commuters present the most consistent nuisances, the figures inspired disbelief.

"That's some serious coin," said Town Manager Ken Decker. "I mean, you think of PTAs and you think bake sales and bingo, but that's a lot of brownies or pizza kits."

Though Biggs' arrest July 19 has been a hot topic in Hampstead, few outside of school circles know much about him. He lived on the fringes of the school district, near Westminster.

"People are buzzing about this guy," said Haven Shoemaker, who has encountered many residents as a council member and Main Street lawyer. "But though I've heard the name, I have no idea who he is, and people I've talked to don't either."

Shoemaker said he recently wrote a $50 check to help the PTA build the playground. "I wonder where that money is now," he said.

Small-town atmosphere

Like many Carroll County towns, Hampstead combines the features of an intimate community with a modern commuter sensibility. On the county's northeastern edge astride Route 30, the town is bracketed by strip malls and fast-food restaurants, with a fire hall, a police station, a few banks and several antique shops at its center.

It's a place where people still pass summer evenings chatting on their porches along Main Street, where town councilmen, still dressed in the baseball jerseys they wore coaching their children at the park, walk into meetings 20 minutes late. The most contentious issues this year have involved extending a dead-end street and limiting the size of sidewalk displays in front of town businesses.

But it is also laden with new subdivisions, having become a popular destination for people drifting out from Baltimore County. And Main Street is crammed daily with rush-hour drivers and truck traffic headed south to Baltimore or north to Hanover, Pa.

Hampstead Elementary sits in the midst of the subdivisions, a quick turn off Main Street.

The school has never seemed anything but a quiet suburban elementary, with dedicated parents led by 15 or 20 PTA stalwarts. Two years ago, one of those dedicated workers, Reginaldi, finished her fourth term as treasurer, and the PTA handed its financial books over to Biggs.

Biggs' tenure as treasurer coincided with a highly productive period for the Hampstead PTA. The past school year, especially, found the PTA flourishing as it pushed for a new playground to augment the single row of swings and patchy grass that serve the children.

Seeking more than $30,000 for the playground, the PTA organized a basket bingo, a candle sale and a pledge drive in which pupils collected money from their families and friends for every lap they could run up to a mile. Children also stuffed jars with coins from their lunch money. A construction paper thermometer in the school lobby recorded their progress.

It's not unusual for county PTAs to raise money for playgrounds, but the Hampstead group did so with unusual alacrity, officials said.

"I was quite impressed that Hampstead's PTA raised the money in a year," said Raymond Prokop, school facilities director.

Playset money missing

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