Everett elementary PTA says $15,000 missing from coffers

EVERETT — Hawthorne Elementary serves students in one of Everett’s poorest neighborhoods. The PTA and others often step up to help.

The PTA raised money to provide children with alarm clocks. It promised to reimburse a teacher who purchased the robotics club T-shirts. Last year, the group took part in a city-wide effort to replace the 30-year-old playground.

Now, detectives are looking into allegations that the PTA’s former president drained the bank account. More than $15,000 appears to be missing.

The woman has not been arrested while the investigation continues, Everett police officer Aaron Snell said. She has resigned from the board.

The Everett PTSA Council will take responsibility for the Hawthorne group’s finances for the rest of the school year, said Mary Levesque, a regional director on the statewide PTA governing board. Her region includes all of Snohomish County and part of Island County.

Hawthorne’s PTA is in debt now and had to close its account, she said. Checks to vendors bounced, and some families didn’t receive T-shirts and sweatshirts they had purchased.

It can take months of work and oversight for a PTA to get back in business after a theft. Groups of volunteers must painstakingly raise money through book fairs and candy bar sales.

The problems at Hawthorne likely started and persisted because board members weren’t following financial guidelines, Levesque said. PTAs are supposed to review bank statements together and require multiple people to sign off on spending. Hawthorne’s PTA was struggling to recruit and train volunteers. It didn’t have a treasurer. It lost federal nonprofit status earlier this year, because of paperwork issues unrelated to the alleged theft.

“The checks and balances were not in place to make sure that everything was handled the right way,” Levesque said.

A notice from the bank prompted an internal review. That showed a series of checks were written without receipts, she said. There also were insufficient invoices.

The board approached Everett police May 3, Snell said. The case was assigned to the financial crimes unit, which specializes in fraud investigation. There is no word on a potential motive.

“We do have a substantial amount of information, and we are combing through it,” Snell said.

It appears the money went missing over a lengthy period of time, he said. The amount involved could lead to felony theft charges.

The PTA sent a letter about the allegations to parents May 4. School leaders Tuesday issued a statement saying they are deeply saddened. “We are confident in our PTA’s ability to address this issue, and we appreciate our staff and community’s support,” the statement read.

A meeting is planned Monday to share information with parents and ask for volunteers to serve as officers. If anyone purchased school apparel and didn’t receive it, they should contact ptareg7@wastatepta.org.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @rikkiking.

Avoid embezzlement

The Washington State PTA recommends the following financial guidelines for parent groups. The same tips apply to booster clubs and other small nonprofits. For PTA groups, the state organization provides free training for board members on preventing theft and watching for red flags. For more information, go to www.wastatepta.org.

Use a budget and keep a ledger. Track all checks, deposits and withdrawals.

Have multiple people share financial responsibilities.

Talk about potential conflicts of interest for board members.

Review and reconcile bank statements.

If you suspect a problem, conduct a financial review and contact the state PTA.

Decide when and how to communicate what happened to the membership. That step must happen at some point.

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