Follow the money and it won't get lost

Not all schools are missing cash from events.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
Published November 3, 2007

Sunlake High School had a busy day collecting money Friday.

Students could buy tickets for wrestling and homecoming during the afternoon, and football during the evening. Cash changed hands for concessions and parking. School sweat shirts also were available for purchase through the principal's office.

"We have fundraisers going on in this school all the time," principal Angie Stone said, as she placed a check in a blue bank deposit bag.

They're all opportunities for money to disappear, Stone readily acknowledged.

"No matter how hard you try and how much monitoring you do, if somebody is going to be dishonest, they're going to be dishonest," she said. "That's just the sad fact. If somebody wants to steal money, they are going to do it. And some people are very good at it."

That's what makes strict adherence to the policies and procedures created to control the cash flow so important.

And Sunlake is one school where the administration runs things right, said Karen LaRochelle, the former district internal auditor who recently brought to public attention financial problems at Pasco and River Ridge high schools.

Dade City police are looking into $20,000 of missing ticket sale receipts at Pasco High, while district internal auditors are reviewing problems at River Ridge.

Another school that regularly gets clean audits of its internal funds is Hudson High, where Stone was principal until taking over Sunlake, LaRochelle said.

Now Dave LaRoche heads Hudson High. He said he follows Stone's vigilant lead in making sure that every dollar gets accounted for.

The answer, both LaRoche and Stone said, lies in two simple yet essential concepts: communication and oversight.

"The procedures the district has are in place. There really isn't a lot that is open to interpretation. They are clear," LaRoche said. "What's important is to make sure everybody involved understands procedurally what needs to take place."

Each school has a booklet that every employee receives. It includes plain English explanations of how to handle money in nearly every imaginable instance, such as running fundraisers, selling tickets and collecting field trip fees. It also provides copies of all the forms they need to file to cover themselves.

Stone and LaRoche review the procedures at the beginning of each year, and periodically throughout the year, too, so no one loses track - especially as the staff turns over. Athletic coaches get special mandatory meetings where the bookkeeping rules get covered.

The bookkeepers at each school keep in close contact with the principals, giving daily reports on the status of the myriad accounts that are running within the internal accounts. The administrative teams meet weekly to discuss the slate of fundraisers, field trips and other money-collection activities that are occurring on campus.

"It's a lot of people involved," LaRoche said. "All of these people work together. That's probably the most important part."

Other key points:

- If the bookkeeper finds discrepancies, they're dealt with immediately.

- Ticket sellers distribute paper tickets and are responsible for accounting for each and every one.

- At least two adults run the ticket stands, concession stands, parking lots and other money-collection efforts, and must cosign the reports, which a top administrator must review and verify.

"Nobody signs for me," Stone said, a sentiment LaRoche echoed. One of the problems at Pasco High was that the bookkeeper frequently signed documents for the principal.

Of course, even the best-laid plans can run astray.

Someone can give incorrect change, or transpose figures, or make other mistakes.

"You treat it as a teachable moment," Stone said. "If (problems) happen every time that person takes tickets ... then maybe there is a bigger issue."

Stone worried about being held up as an example. Because even the best-run school can get ripped off, she said.

Still, she concluded, if a school follows all the procedures and reinforces them regularly, "you discourage it more often than not."

And that's the key point, LaRoche agreed.

"There's a purpose for every dollar," he said. "And we need to make sure we use them the right way."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.