Under the shadow of an unrelated neighborhood embezzlement case, Columbia County’s school board Tuesday is expected to increase financial oversight of school organizations.
Currently, the books of roughly 18 out of 49 parent fundraiser groups at 31 schools are still kept by those organization’s boards, according to Columbia School Superintendent Charles Nagle.
Officials had planned this summer to start requiring all such groups to run their accounts through each school’s office, Nagle said. The need to complete the transition before the start of next school year sped up that plan, but news that nearly $200,000 had been looted from the Stratford Property Owners Association added urgency to the policy change, he said.
That includes the Parent-Teacher Organization of Riverside Elementary School, many of whose families live in Stratford.
All of the members of the executive board of the Riverside PTO recently resigned, in part, over friction generated by the pending bookkeeping change, said former PTO president Cyndi Griffin.
“We’ve had a lot of run-ins this year where the parents of the PTO wanted to do things and the principal has not wanted us to,” Griffin said. “The financial situation, the way that came about at the last meeting, that was the last straw.”
At that February PTO board meeting, the members were startled to learn from Principal Judy Bonadio that the system was planning to take over the PTO’s books – meaning the organization would lose its status as a registered nonprofit and with it what members felt was their autonomy.
“Money is power,” Griffin said. “If the parents are in charge of the money, that gives them more power and more say in what’s happening in their children’s education.”
That won’t change under the new system, Bonadio insisted. “Essentially, all we’re doing is accounting and depositing their money. They’re still going to have all the decision-making power they’ve had long term. The only difference is the money is going to be accounted for and deposited in the bank by the school.”
It’s all about accountability, Nagle said.
“Every time somebody has a beef with the PTO president or the booster president, we get calls,” Nagle said. “‘Have you checked them? Do you know?’ It’s hard to catch it if they’re not going through our books. And it is a lot of money.”
School trustee Mike Sleeper, who also is a Stratford resident, said he’s fielded plenty of questions over both the neighborhood investigation and general accounting for PTO funds.
“This all hits home,” he said.
In some cases, it’s not unusual for the funds going through a schools’ books to hit more than half a million dollars as things such as major fundraisers and yearbook funds mount up, Nagle said. The school system has to account for all of that money during its annual audit – even if the school system doesn’t have access to the parent group’s books.
“This takes all the questions out of it, because we can give them an official audit,” Nagle said.
Meanwhile, Riverside Elementary is accepting nominations for new PTO board members, where the mass resignation surprised her, Bonadio said.
“I was a little taken aback,” she said. “I fully expected they would finish out the year. Right now we’re sort of in a holding pattern. We clearly have to get another PTO board elected... so we can have a functioning group of people who can finish out the wishes of the PTO for this year.”