This past spring, just as Lakeside High School Principal Jeff Carney began to get suspicious about his school's band booster club finances, the school system's central office already was revising the way such private support groups handle their money.
The reforms were too late to stop the reported theft of some $12,000 from the boosters, just as they were too late to stop reported thefts that had been discovered at other schools. But it's heartening to think that the combination of these reforms, plus a couple of high-profile arrests, could likely deter further problems.
Columbia County investigators were notified Sept. 1 when the school system's auditor found that the sloppily kept Lakeside Band Boosters account was missing several thousand dollars. One month later, former booster club president Sharon Nichols has been charged with felony theft by taking, accused of stealing more than $12,000 from the boosters.
The money problems first came to light when Carney received bills in the spring for orders that should already have been paid. He soon discovered the boosters' records were in such awful shape that it took two sessions from the school system's internal auditor to figure out that a lot of money wasn't properly accounted for.
Worse, the exact amount of missing money may never be known. Among other things, the complicated allegations center on questions about deposits Nichols made for the boosters. Receipts from such things as concession sales would rarely have generated exact, clean amounts, so the suspicion is that some of the money was skimmed before rounded-off deposits were put in the bank.
The old way the boosters did business was all too common around the county. At one point, recurring allegations of mismanagement and theft threatened to swing the pendulum the other way -- from a too-lax, hands-off system, to one in which school administrators would step in to take over the private accounts.
Instead, the reforms this past spring strike the right balance, by keeping the funds in the hands of the private groups but requiring improved accounting practices. "I hope all these clubs take heed that we are serious about accountability," says School Board Chairman Roxanne Whitaker.
Those booster-club officers who still don't take it seriously need look no further than the cases of Sharon Nichols, or the October 2003 case of Helen Grant at Evans Middle, or the February 2004 case of Susanne White and Greenbrier Elementary. County officials are determined to make sure money raised on behalf of students goes to help the students -- not falling through the cracks of incompetence, or into the pockets of thieves.
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