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Countryside High football booster club's actions merit investigation

A highly critical financial audit of the Countryside High School football booster club raises so many red flags that further investigation is warranted, and the school district may want to cut ties with the club. From that group's mistakes comes a lesson for other school booster groups: Even an all-volunteer organization should have a financial management system, strong bylaws and a policy that expenditures have to be approved by more than one person.

The school district's Office of Professional Standards recently released its audit of Countryside Touchdown Club Inc., which raises money to support the school's football program. The audit shows an appalling level of nonchalance about spending and carelessness about recordkeeping.

St. Petersburg Times staff writer John C. Cotey reported that the club spent almost $320,000 over the last three years and had debts totalling $28,000. Recordkeeping was so poor that auditors could not even determine the true financial condition of the club. Of the 1,331 transactions the OPS audited, it found receipts for only 194.

And what did those receipts show? More than $3,000 spent at Dogwater Cafe, a hangout for the school's coaches. Expenditures for alcohol. Some $3,000 spent at gas stations. About $3,000 to purchase tickets to Tampa Bay Buccaneers games.

Of particular concern are 889 purchases made with the club's debit card, most without any paper trail, and $34,000 in unexplained cash withdrawals from the club's account.

The club also may have violated federal tax laws when it paid $15,000 to assistant coaches without filing the proper tax forms.

The audit covered the period from July 1, 2007, to Sept. 30, 2010. During most of that time, former Countryside student John Schroeder was booster club president and controlled the club's finances.

Apparently neither former head coach John Davis, nor current head coach Jared Davis, nor Countryside principal Gary Schlereth were paying attention to the club's finances. One person who was paying attention was active club member Stephanie Hawks, who was president-elect of the organization at the start of this school year when she went to Jared Davis and urged him to remove Schroeder from the club checking account.

For expressing her concerns, Hawks claims she was ridden out of the organization. Schroeder resigned as club president in late September after Hawks reported to school officials that he allegedly made sexually explicit remarks about her in the presence of the school's assistant coaches.

The new club president, Jorge Chavez, says he has made progress in getting the situation under control by whittling down the club's debt, setting up a filing cabinet in the coach's office, and locating additional documentation for some past expenditures. But he is worried about how the club will raise the funds it needs this year, given publicity over the disastrous audit findings.

The students were supposed to be the beneficiaries of the club's fundraising. Now less money may be available for their benefit because of the irresponsibility of the adults involved in the booster club.

School officials reported Tuesday that principal Schlereth is meeting with district and club officials to determine what steps need to be taken to address the audit findings. But the district's first responsibility should be to decide whether the Touchdown Club Inc. will be allowed to continue its involvement in the football program.

District officials still don't know what happened to large sums of money raised from donors to support the football program. Law enforcement may need to be called in to determine whether there was misuse or misappropriation of money by club officers.

And the Touchdown Club also blatantly violated several school district policies that govern the activities of booster organizations. For example, the district requires that "adequate, auditable financial records" be maintained at all times and that booster clubs comply with district policy in receiving and disbursing funds. It isn't clear whether the Touchdown Club also violated policies that required it to submit regular financial reports to the school principal.

The district's goal should be to ensure that the integrity of the school's academic and athletic programs is not marred by the behavior of the football booster club. The only way to avoid that may be to cut the ties with the Touchdown Club and start over.

Countryside High football booster club's actions merit investigation 12/07/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 7, 2010 6:16pm]
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