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The Miami Herald
August 12, 2006 Saturday

Parents flag unchecked PTAs;
Parents are calling for better checks and balances of PTA organizations after a PTA treasurer was charged with grand theft.

BYLINE: NATALIE P. McNEAL
SECTION: A; Pg. 1

At first, the acts seemed forgivable. PTA treasurer Cheryl Velazquez's home printer didn't work, so she couldn't give account balances to members.

Then, the checks didn't post to the PTA account because the bank's clearinghouse was malfunctioning, she told board members.

But soon board members realized something more sinister could be involved, and last month police charged Velazquez with second-degree felony grand theft for allegedly stealing $25,000 from the Lakeside Elementary PTA in Pembroke Pines.

Lakeside's PTA -- with an annual budget last year of $170,000 -- is one of the richest in Broward County. But it's not unusual for PTA budgets to climb to six figures in South Florida.

The PTA organizations -- 170 in Broward and 275 in Miami-Dade -- raise tens of thousands of dollars selling wrapping paper, school supplies and running countless fundraisers.

And schools, which face more funding challenges every year, now rely on PTAs for some of their basic expenses that in previous years would have been paid for by the school district: playground equipment, classroom supplies, school books and teacher aide salaries.

The groups are often run by volunteers with minimal experience handling big budgets and by volunteers who don't get training offered by the county and state PTAs.

Over the past five years, embezzlement claims against PTAs have surpassed liability claims (such as might occur in the event of an injury at a PTA-sponsored fundraiser, like a carnival), according to Association Insurance Management, which handles insurance for 9,000 PTAs in the nation.

Chad Joyce, a client-relations manager for the insurance company, said he used to see one embezzlement claim for every 10 liability claims. But now, embezzlement claims outpace liability claims by more than 2-1.

''I think it's a lack of education and a trust factor causing the embezzlements,'' Joyce said. ``The president this year and the treasurer may have been lifelong friends and live next door to each other. A lot of PTAs don't feel like it's needed to put internal controls in place.''

And parents want more checks and balances.

Diane Parker, a former Lakeside Elementary PTA president who reported Velazquez to the Pembroke Pines police, said there should be more -- or better -- oversight from the PTA's county and state councils.
''I don't think this is as isolated as we would like to think,'' she said.

Rosemary Fuller, who has worked with Miami-Dade PTAs for years as a PTA parent and as a school principal at Perrine Elementary in South Miami-Dade, said there is little accountability for the cash that PTAs handle.

''There's a lot of room for misappropriations,'' said Fuller, who is retired. ``And I don't think the county council has any bite.''

In Miami-Dade, the organization's countywide president said individual oversight would be impossible, given the county's nurmerous PTAs.

''We assist and we advise, but we do not have an enforcement ability,'' said Ivelisse Castro, president of the Dade County Council PTA/PTSA.

OPERATION GUIDELINES
PTAs operate as their own nonprofits run by volunteers who don't report to the school district. Nor are they forced to adhere to national PTA guidelines when it comes to finances.

''We like to believe that people are working in the best interest of children,'' said Nancy Cox, president of Florida's PTA. ``We don't want to believe that people are intentionally taking money. But occasionally, it does happen.''

In Florida, an annual audit, conducted by PTA members or a professional, is suggested by June 30. The audits do not have to be reported to the county or state PTAs.

''If they don't do the audit, then the membership needs to ask why not,'' said Latha Krishnaiyer, a past Florida and Broward Council PTA president. ``The members of the PTA are the ones who wield the power, not necessarily us.''

A financial review of the Pembroke Pines' Silver Palms Elementary's PTA books is under way after yearbooks handled by the school's PTA weren't delivered by the year's end.

''It's completely unacceptable that we don't have them, we prepaid,'' said Holly Greger, whose daughter attended Silver Palms last year. ``It's too easy to pass the buck and blame the PTA because they are not employees. It's surprising that they would have access to money and no oversight by the schools.''

No evidence has cropped up so far of criminal wrongdoing, but the PTA's bookkeeping ''was a mess,'' said Heather Bryan, the new Silver Palms Elementary PTA president.

In Broward, elementary PTAs are most robust in middle-class neighborhoods, with the organization handling everything from teacher appreciation breakfasts to taking photos for and developing the yearbooks.

WHO BENEFITS?
The PTA for Park Trails Elementary in Parkland, one of the county's toniest towns, raised $301,705, according to its 2005 tax filings. Brenda Cepeda's PTSA at Silver Lakes Elementary in Miramar raised $118,000 last year for reading and math programs, teacher breakfasts and academic awards.

The PTSA handled the school yearbook and sent its officers to get leadership training.

The school, in a middle of a planned development where homes cost $500,000, bought six picnic tables -- one handicapped accessible -- last year for outdoor dining. They also bought 40 choir vests.

Cepeda, a full-time mom who volunteers for the PTA five days a week, says her PTSA hires a professional accountant to file its nonprofit paperwork.

But PTA county and state officials scoff at the large sums raised.

The focus should be on lobbying politicians to do more for schools -- not putting pressure on the backs of parents to purchase essentials for their kids, said Cox, president of Florida's PTA.

''Is it fair for the children who live in affluent areas to have more than the children who live in poorer areas and whose parents can't afford for their children to have extra books, computers or shaded play areas?'' Cox said.

Jayne Hafer, a mother of four, has been a member or leader of a Deerfield Beach PTA for 20 years. Deerfield Elementary and Middle schools are both Title 1 schools, a federal term for schools with large numbers of economically disadvantaged children.

While the budgets may be smaller -- $55,474 for the elementary in a 2005 tax filing -- the schools in Deerfield Beach still manage to host speakers for parents and teachers about Internet safety, drug abuse, immunization needs and FCAT training.

''It's not just about the money,'' Hafer said.

 

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