Phoenix Police are investigating the possible theft of thousands of dollars from the Parent Teachers Organization at Monte Vista Elementary School in Ahwatukee.
Although some media reports put the loss at $20,000, Phoenix Police spokesman Luis Samudio said the department won’t comment on the extent of the alleged theft.
“There is an investigation that was initiated but it’s still an ongoing investigation,” Samudio said. “Based on what I read on the report, it’s allegations only at this point. Detectives will have to conduct an investigation.”
With only a reported $2,000 in its bank account and $11,000 in unpaid bills, the PTO is unable to give teachers the customary $300 to $500 grants the group usually gives to help them set up their class rooms, the new board said in a joint letter to Monte Vista parents on June 26.
The board was just elected and took office in mid-May, and soon thereafter discovered the financial irregularities.
Co-Vice President Robin Barrett told AFN, “Ultimately, children are the victims when financial integrity is in question. Now more than ever we need the support of our parents, community and local businesses.”
“We will not be able to discuss anything that relates to the investigation. We can tell you where we are right now and the efforts we are making to replenish missing funds,” she added.
The new PTO board’s letter to parents said a number of changes were being made in the way the group’s finances are handled.
“We hope to restore these activities by next year and provide the level of support that our students and teachers deserve,” their letter stated.
The letter also said that soon after the new board took office, “we learned that there was a material discrepancy between the account balances reported on the PTO budget and the actual funds in the PTO bank accounts.”
“There is even an outstanding bill we cannot pay at this time,” it continued, adding that the new board then met with school and district officials before contacting police.
Like other districts throughout Arizona, Kyrene has no formal oversight relationship of PTOs, which are nonprofit organizations set up by parents themselves.
“PTOs operate as a separate entity,” Superintendent Jan Vesely told AFN. “We do not manage or oversee their fundraising or expenditures. Annually, we do offer financial training as a courtesy for all PTO officers.”
Vesely also noted that principals have no formal relationship with PTOs either.
“Principals have no authority, nor oversight of PTO funds. They attend the monthly meetings along with parents and listen as the treasurer presents the profit/expenditure statement. Principals do not have access to the bank statements, nor financial records,” Vesely said.
Vesely also said, “Monte Vista families and staff all have the full support of the District. We know it’s a strong community that will rally around its students and teachers.”
District spokeswoman Erin Helm added that because “school districts and parent organizations are entirely separate when it comes to finance and governance,” she could not comment on the Monte Vista situation except to say “the district shares the community’s shock and disappointment.”
“When a parent organization’s financial integrity is questioned, it is students and teachers who pay the price,” Helm said. “Kyrene School District will do all it can to support Monte Vista students, families, staff, administration, and its brand-new PTO board in the coming year. We hope the community will do the same.”
Helm also said that because of the wall between parent groups and the district, “There are limitations to what the district can do. For example, Kyrene cannot provide legal counsel to the PTO on this situation.
“However, Kyrene will continue to support the Monte Vista community in any way it can,” Helm added.
The PTO board told parents it was taking a number of measures “to ensure financial accountability and transparency.”
“All PTO supporters should have full confidence that contributions are being used to enhance students’ and teachers’ experiences at Monte Vista,” it said.
As a result of the district training Vesely and Helm cited, the new board said it is “making amendments to our PTO’s bylaws to formalize the checks and balances necessary to ensure that our PTO will never be in this situation again.
“Despite the tremendous challenges that we face this year, our PTO board for the 2019-2020 school year is a united team, and we have already been hard at work developing ideas about how to replenish missing funds.
“We look forward to working with our families and teachers to make this a memorable and rewarding school year for our children.”
Board members also said, “We have inherited this PTO and are frustrated and upset with these findings.
“We even considered resigning in light of the discoveries, but each of us has volunteered at this school to raise money for teacher grants, school beautification projects, reading wall, scholastic book fairs, annual events loved most of all by our children and realize that the PTO plays an integral role in making these events and activities happen.
“We volunteer because we want our students to thrive and have a positive experience at Monte Vista.”
There has been no reported theft of this magnitude in Kyrene since 2010, when a former principal was arrested on multiple felony charges from embezzling or misusing nearly $55,000 from Cerritos and Cielo elementary schools.
Janet Thor ultimately pleaded guilty to diverting donations made to Cerritos and Kyrene del Cielo, to unauthorized bank accounts and embezzling $33,000 of that money for her own use, according to the Arizona Auditor General's Office.
Thor resigned from the district in April 2009, after an internal investigation by Kyrene found she had misused money at Cielo, and voluntarily surrendered her teaching credentials that October.
The scheme started in July 2004, when Thor was principal at Cerritos, according to the auditor general's report.
Thor deposited donations from a parent group, companies, foundations and other sources into a bank account, then took $18,207 for her own use, usually by writing herself checks that were deposited into a personal account, by the time her tenure at Cerritos ended in 2007.
At that time, the principal who took over at Cerritos asked the district office about the account.
Thor had misled the district into thinking the money was a PTO account, thereby avoiding any oversight for several years.