Recent incidents in Ohio of parents pocketing money raised through school booster clubs and parent-teacher organizations have led the state to consider new accountability requirements for these groups.
According to an article in the Dayton Daily News, over the past four years, funds that were supposed to support schools' sports teams, clubs, and other student organizations in districts around the state have been embezzled, stolen, or misused, amounting to millions of dollars.
The article reports one parent took over $10,000 for personal trips and expenses.
This past summer, the state legislature gave the Ohio Attorney General's Office authorization to require that fundraising clubs and organizations that handle more than $25,000 provide annual reports to the state that include financial records. Other states like Tennessee have also attempted to improve reporting practices for fundraising groups, the story says, and the Internal Revenue Service decided last year that nonprofits can lose their tax-exempt status if they do not file tax returns for three years.
Increasing numbers of these organizations in Ohio may well be handling far more than $25,000, according to reporting I did last spring when I wrote about the rising pressures on parent and local foundation giving post Great Recession.
According to sources I spoke to, including state and national PTA leaders and large district-level foundations, school district budget gaps have made fundraising dollars an essential part of districts' budgets today; in some districts, parent and community giving has reached upwards of $10 million.
In addition, this money in many locales is no longer paying for extra playground equipment, but funding some core items in a district's budget like staff professional development, after-school programs, arts instruction, and, in some places, even teachers. In this week's story in Ohio, for example, the athletic boosters in the Franklin district nearly footed the entire bill of the district's new $1.2 million football stadium.
Sources also told me last spring that some of the concerns about equity gaps between districts and between schools in how much money is raised (and spent for add-ons) is hard to track given the autonomy most of these parent-teacher and community organizations have; i.e. in many places, parents have little knowledge how much money is raised at schools they have no children attending. This is one of the reasons some districts have moved to centralized fundraising models and creation of community based foundations: to improve accountability in reporting financials and ensuring greater equity in dollars spent school to school.
Ohio's solution may mitigate some of these concerns.
"To the extent the state of Ohio can increase the transparency and accountability for outside boosters organizations, it will improve the general public's level of trust toward the school district," says Tom Isaacs, an assistant superintendent of Warren County Educational Service Center in Ohio.
(My colleague Christina Samuels also recently wrote about the rise in municipal foundations shifting their focus to supporting school improvement and innovation. Also look for my colleague Mike Bock's story out soon on the gaining popularity of online fundraising tools for school districts; one school was able to raise $52,000 in a 12-hour online fundraising drive alone.)