PTA raises $$$, but state PTA prefers lobbying

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

BY NATALIE P. McNEAL

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.