Audit Highlights Disparities of Schools’ Activity Funds

An end-of-year audit for Loudoun County Public Schools shows wide gaps between individual school activity funds, with some schools bringing in as much as $1.4 million in one year and others as little as $8,950.

Thomas Yetter, the school system’s director of financial services, presented the 2017 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report at the Dec. 12 School Board meeting. He noted that the accounting firm Cherry Bekaert gave the school system “an unmodified opinion,” the best possible result of an audit.

School Board members commended staff on another clean audit, and then turned their attention to the 81 pages on the school activity funds.

The report showed that, during fiscal year 2017 which ended June 30, elementary schools raised anywhere from $8,950 (Aldie Elementary) to $163,487 (Madison’s Trust Elementary). Middle schools brought in as little as $102,214 (Blue Ridge Middle) to as much as $277,640 (Mercer Middle). At the high school level, the most raised was $1.4 million at Stone Bridge in Ashburn, and Park View in Sterling raised the least at $600,210.

The money is collected through fundraising events, donations, student activities and, at the high school level, athletic and activity fees. Loudoun County charges high school students $150 for each sport and other extra-curricular activities they participate in. The school system covers that fee for students from low-income families.

A few school board members said they have concerns about the disparity among schools when it comes to raising enough money to provide extra support and programs for students.

At a handful of schools, the low fundraising totals can be explained by small enrollment. But others are average size and have a tough time raising money because they are in low-income neighborhoods.

School Board member Jill Turgeon (Blue Ridge) noted that it seems to be worst at the elementary level. Guilford Elementary, with 77 percent of its 556 students from low-income families, brought in $21,664 last year, and Meadowland Elementary, with 41 percent of its 451 students from low-income families, collected $14,734. The ending balances for the school year ranged from $4,154 (Banneker) and $5,313 (Sterling) on the low end to $108,101 (Newton-Lee) and $111,977 (Pinebrook) on the high end.

Turgeon suggested that, at the committee level, board members should get a better understanding about how funds are collected and used and whether each school’s needs are being met.

“I know this may be pie in the sky, but I would love to see some of these schools work together,” she said, “because some schools don’t have the resources but definitely have the need.”

Superintendent Eric Williams said a solution may be just around the corner. As part of his recommended budget for fiscal year 2019, which he’ll present Jan. 9, he’ll offer a suggestion for leveling the playing field. “It tries to address some of equity issues. We’re still pulling together the details still, but we will present that in January.”

School Board member Debbie Rose (Algonkian) asked whether there is oversight for how schools raise and spend money. Some parents have raised concerns about how much of a cut third-party companies receive for putting on fundraisers.

Principals are responsible for safeguarding, accounting and managing their schools’ activity funds, and they receive training on division and state policies and regulations to track of how the money is raised and spent, according to Yetter.

“We show them the requirements. … For example, if they want to have a fundraiser for hurricane victims, every penny has to go toward the fundraiser. There’s no such thing as an administrative fee,” he said.

Schools are not required to spend all of the money that comes in to their activity funds each year, which means some ended the fiscal year with hefty balances. Schools with the largest fund balance include Loudoun County ($436,146), Briar Woods (348,137), and Loudoun Valley ($332,168). Each balance figure is the total of every school-sponsored activity at each school, from drama club and yearbook to the football program.

Rose pressed Yetter for how parents can get the totals broken down by specific club’s end-of-year balance. Right now, they would have to submit a formal Freedom of Information Act request to get that kind of detail. She suggested that that information be published on each school’s website.

“When you don’t see what’s being spent in the individual funds, it makes it very difficult for the public to be involved in those decisions,” Rose said, later adding, “If I’m getting asked to pay for a lot of extras and then you find out your school is sitting on $400,000, I feel like people ought to know that.”

The report also includes findings of each individual schools’ audits. See the results and details of the school activity funds report here.

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