PLANT CITY — Springhead Elementary School PTA leaders are searching for answers on how to move forward in the wake of a scandal that has resulted in the association losing at least $16,000.
Bridgitte Kramer, president of the Hillsborough County Council PTA/PTSA, said she has taken several calls from Springhead members seeking advice after Lakeland police arrested former Springhead PTA treasurer Lisa Shirah Sept. 7, accusing her of using her position to misappropriate funds.
Police charged Shirah with six counts each of forgery and uttering a forged instrument, two counts of theft of personal identification information and one count each of grand theft and scheming to defraud.
Kramer said the impact of the arrest continues to reverberate with remaining PTA officers, but she advised them to notify all members about the theft, reconcile the books and start working out a budget.
"I'm just hoping the families will come back and support them again," Kramer said. "They're just devastated because they trusted this person, and they're also upset because she took it from the kids. That money is meant to enrich the education of the students."
Kramer added that it's likely any outstanding bills will still need to be paid. The group can petition the court for restitution, but it might take months, even years, before they see any money.
The loss is a big blow for Springhead, which sits at the eastern edge of Plant City and serves mostly rural families, including many immigrants. Almost half its students are Hispanic and 82 percent receive free or reduced-price lunches.
The PTA had targeted those funds for student incentives, after-school programs, school supplies and a teacher appreciation week.
"The disappointing thing about this is she's stealing from kids," Hillsborough County School District spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said.
Lakeland Police say that over a five-month period Shirah, 34, of Plant City, used her position to bilk the school's PTA. She convinced fellow board members Liberty Libretti and Emma E. Angeles to co-sign checks for PTA expenses she supposedly incurred. In at least nine cases, Shirah accepted reimbursement without paying any bills. Police say Libretti and Angeles were kept in the dark the whole time.
PTAs and other nonprofit organizations try to stay vigilant in protecting their finances through training seminars, tip sheets and Web resources. The state and national organizations offer tips on how to prevent fraud through dual check signing, yearly audits, monthly bank statements and financial reports.
"We have constant reminders, different tidbits of information in our magazine and on our website, in emails," said James Martinez, spokesman for the national PTA in Alexandria, Va. "We also did a podcast this year on our website that specifically talks about how to deter embezzlement.
"It's unfortunate. We can put out as many different safeguards and as many different resources as possible to help them prevent fraud, but as with any nonprofit or charity, if someone is determined to do something fraudulent they still may find a way to do it."
The Springhead officers received "back-to-school leadership packets" that described how to put financial controls in place. They also attended a leadership seminar July 13-15 in Tarpon Springs that touched on ways to recognize fraud and embezzlement.
Among the signs, officials say Shirah balked at providing monthly financial reports and presenting bank statements. An audit that should have been done after she became treasurer kept getting delayed.
"At first they thought this person just needed help getting the books done," Kramer said. "She kept saying, I'll get to it, I'll get to it, I'll get to it, but it didn't get done. That's when they called me and said they believed something was wrong."
Then past-due bills started arriving at the school. Principal Ann Rushing and other PTA officers again confronted Shirah, threatening to call the police. When they finally examined the books, they found the PTA's account balance had dropped from $25,000, when Shirah started as treasurer five months earlier, to $575. Rushing notified police on Aug. 2.
Police are still trying to determine where all the money went.
Shirah served as PTA treasurer from January until July 26. Before that, she served as president from October 2011 to January. She works as a dental assistant in Lakeland. Calls to her home on Old Mulberry Road in Plant City were not returned.
According to an arrest affidavit, Lakeland Police found that many checks endorsed by Shirah included notations at the bottom such as "Spring Fling (food) Fundraiser," "teacher appreciation week, for food," and "stamps."
But when questioned by officers, Shirah couldn't produce any receipts or bills. Meanwhile, Libretti and Angeles had told police they relied on Shirah's word that the bills were being paid.
Rich Shopes can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2454.