Embezzlement Case Raises Safeguard Issues for Schools

As parent-run youth sports programs go, this one seemed to be thriving. More than 100 third- through sixth-grade girls competed in volleyball against girls from five other programs, learned skills from high school players and got to attend summer camps.

But when Northview Public Schools officials discovered the nonprofit program’s treasurer had embezzled thousands of dollars from the group, they realized they needed to require tighter financial controls – not just of the volleyball program but all community-based groups that use their facilities.     

The embezzlement of nearly $18,000 from Northview Girls Youth Volleyball, which is not affiliated with the school district, reveals the need for all districts to closely monitor community organizations that use school facilities and serve students, but are not formally affiliated, officials say.

 “We’re a reflection of the issues in the community,” said Mike Paskewicz, superintendent of Northview Public Schools. “Anytime you’ve got adults and money mixed, there’s a possibility of inappropriate behavior.

“The thing I always remember is that 99 percent of our adults are doing the right thing for the right reasons,” Paskewicz added. “They handle those funds appropriately.”

Tennille Maas-Rasmussen, however, did not, authorities say. The former treasurer of Northview Girls Youth Volleyball pleaded guilty in Kent County Circuit Court on Dec. 4 to embezzlement over $1,000 and less than $20,000. She is scheduled to be sentenced Jan. 27.

Officials say Maas-Rasmussen embezzled the funds over three years, from January 2010 until early this year, when the program director discovered funds missing from its accounts. Maas-Rasmussen has reimbursed $3,000 of the stolen funds.

Stricter Accounting Required

After learning of the alleged embezzlement in February, Northview school officials moved quickly to tighten financial controls. All youth sports organizations using their facilities, including Rocket football and basketball, and club sports such as lacrosse and crew, were asked to submit program summary sheets. Officials then recommended changes to strengthen financial checks and balances.

A key change was to require all the groups to have at least two signatures on any movement of funds. That was to prevent the kind of misuse practiced by Maas-Rasmussen, who could cash checks and move funds into her personal account with her signature alone, Paskewicz said.

Northview Girls Youth Volleyball now requires two signatures to pay a bill, cash a check or make any other transaction, said Kelsey VanZanten, the program’s director since 2010. She and a co-director are named on a checking account at a bank that neither uses for personal accounts, she said.

“We’ve really tightened it down,” said VanZanten, a teacher at East Oakview Elementary whose daughter was in the program. “Nothing can happen without two people’s signatures.” 

The group’s funds come from fees of $45 per player, fundraisers, concession sales and T-shirts, VanZanten said. The money is spent on uniforms, volleyball nets and volleyballs at $25 apiece for 18 teams. The nonprofit program’s 36 coaches all volunteer, she said.

The teams practice at North Oakview Elementary and host games at Highlands Middle School. They compete against teams from the Kenowa Hills, Rockford, Sparta, Coopersville and Tri County Area school districts. Like other community sports groups, they are charged for use of school facilities, must file financial reports and have their volunteers undergo state police background checks. 

Similar Problems Elsewhere

Other Kent County districts have faced financial abuses by parent-based groups in recent years, and have also taken measures to prevent them.

 In 2011, a former treasurer of Lowell Area Schools Athletic Boosters pleaded guilty to embezzlement, was sentenced to jail time and ordered to repay the boosters $98,588, authorities said. The boosters are a nonprofit separate from Lowell Area Schools.

Superintendent Greg Pratt said the athletic boosters subsequently revised their policies, and that the school district reached out to other groups to make sure they had adequate safeguards. The school district works closely with groups such as a wrestling club and band boosters and regularly reviews procedures with community nonprofits, Pratt said.

 “All these people have such great intentions,” Pratt said. “They work really hard on behalf of their organizations, and they want to see a tremendous amount of success. But that can really go awry very quickly by one person’s poor choice.”

In Caledonia Community Schools, the former treasurer of the Caledonia Elementary School PTO was sentenced in 2006 to five years’ probation for embezzlement and ordered to repay more than $45,000, according to authorities. Superintendent Randy Rodriguez, who was principal of Caledonia Elementary at the time, said she made restitution in full.

To discourage such incidents, the district has given PTOs and sports boosters software programs to help manage their bookkeeping, Rodriguez said. The schools encourage groups to perform audits as registered nonprofits, and this year began requiring organization leaders to attend presentations by the district finance director.

“It brings a consistency to how our organizations manage money,” Rodriguez said. “It doesn’t change with each new board or treasurer that comes in.”

Worthwhile Risks, Personal Hurts

Though they can’t completely eliminate the risk of financial or other misdeeds by community-based organizations, officials say, the risk is more than offset by significant benefits.

“We wouldn’t be able to provide near the enrichments to our kids without the support of our parents and our community,” Rodriguez said. “We couldn’t do it without them.”

“The positives far outweigh the negatives,” Pratt agreed. “We have thousands of volunteers giving thousands of hours across Kent County (who) enhance our students’ lives by what they do.”

However, Pratt admitted such incidents hurt the schools’ image, adding, “We always want to be good stewards. When you have someone close to you who broke that trust, it feels like a reflection on the whole community, especially in a small community like ours.”

That broken trust can hurt on a personal level, too. VanZanten, head of Northview Girls Youth Volleyball, said she was friends with Maas-Rasmussen and had one of her daughters in class. VanZanten called the incident “devastating” for herself and sad for all involved.

“You trust somebody and give them the benefit of the doubt,” VanZanten said. “You never suspect they’re making such poor choices.

“I hope we don’t have to go through something like this again in Northview. It shows you really have to be careful.”

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Northville Girls Youth Volleyball

MLive.com article

 

Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio.

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