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Shrinking State School Investment Creates Unexpected Problems

October 26, 2009 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

The news dropped like a bomb among Oak Hills Elementary School parents. The treasurer of the Lakeville school's PTA allegedly stole as much as $15,000 from the group.

The allegations show the importance of accountability and transparency, two values that can't be stressed enough when dealing not only with money but with the public's trust.

"It is very important that all dealings are conducted in the open," said Jim Meffert-Nelson, president of the Minnesota PTA.  "We offer a lot of training that ensures boards and PTA officials keep an informed eye on the finances - that the finances are available to anyone at any time."

The issue comes to light after Lisa Miller, the former treasurer of the Oak Hills Elementary PTO, came under investigation for stealing as much as $15,000 from the PTO's coffers. The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that the PTO bank account was used to pay for items including $533 to Northwest Airlines, $328 to Cole's Salon, $1,215 for University of Minnesota events, $1,217 for a stay at a New York City hotel and $426 for Breezy Point Resort near Brainerd, charges at restaurants in Minnesota and New York totaling more than $250 and multiple ATM withdrawals totaling $1,500.

The alleged expenditures occurred between May and September this year. In addition, Thisweek Newspaper reported that an inspection also revealed Miller wrote herself multiple checks totaling more than $40,000, from the PTO account in October 2008, which she later repaid to the organization. The inappropriate account use allegedly began shortly after Miller left her job as president of Merchant's Bank in Lakeville in October of 2008.

The problem was noted only after Miller was elected PTO president and a new treasurer went to the bank and found only $66 in the account.

The PTO is not affiliated financially with Oak Hills Elementary and no public funds were lost. But the link between group and school was not lost on Meffert -Nelson

"There is more and more pressure placed on parent organizations to bring dollars into schools," he said. "Our first mission has traditionally been to bring parents into the schools as volunteers, but we have seen an almost total transition from that mission to filling the funding gaps schools suffer because of the lack of state aid to schools."

State investment in schools has dropped an inflation-adjusted 13 percent since 2003. In June, Gov. Tim Pawlenty forced a shift of state school aid from one year to the next, so that schools will only see 73 percent of their promised state revenue this year. State money accounts for as much as 85 percent of a school district's operating budget.

Therefore, parent organizations are making up the difference with fundraisers, which means more cash is passing through the hands of volunteers, Meffert-Nelson said, adding that problems such as the alleged thefts in Lakeville occur perhaps once each year. "They're not common, but about once a year we see some questionable practices," he said. Sometimes those questionable practices come about because of conflict between treasurers and presidents. Sometimes they come about because volunteers keep one position too long and they become too comfortable. In either case, a regular transition of authority helps keep the organization on the right track.

Also, PTAs are nonprofit entities that require officers to navigate the Byzantine world of IRS forms. The state organization gives them the tools to handle the forms and filings that are required.

"Structure is very important for these groups," Meffert-Nelson said. "Lots of parents don't want to have to jump through these hoops, but it's very important."

Most financial problems at PTAs can be solved by simply requiring two people to sign off on deposits and withdrawals. While this may seem cumbersome, it goes a long way to making the group's financial issues more transparent and the officials more accountable.  As parents, that's all we really want.

Ultimately, however, school districts shouldn't have to rely on PTA organizations to pay for the basics.  Proper state investment can allow PTAs to assume the role they play best, supporters of their students and fundraisers for the extras.

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