The Tahlequah Public Schools administration is looking at ways to improve protocols for money earned through fundraisers. It’s a move that should have been made years ago, because it might have saved the job of a teacher who was well-liked by students.
Public bodies are required to post agendas of upcoming meetings, and most of those bodies in this county either fax or email those agendas to the Press. This is how the Press learned last month that TPS planned to take action against Justin Frazier, middle school band director. All anyone knew was that Frazier had been arrested in Muskogee County for possession of a controlled substance – in this case, prescribed drugs. This, it was assumed, was the impetus for the action against him.
So the Press was as surprised as anyone else when, during a school board hearing, school officials accused Frazier of taking more than $1,000 in funds raised by band students. Frazier vehemently denied the charges, and his attorney, Shannon Otteson-Goza, argued the district had poor policies in place for collecting and depositing money.
Karen Long, attorney for the school board, maintains TPS has some of the best policies and procedures going, but admits the district appears to be “deficient” in following its own rules. Her statement comes as no surprise to parents who have been involved with the band boosters or other parent groups over the years.
Many people can attest to a foot-loose and fancy-free manner of dealing with money raised by students and boosters. A couple of booster groups have been known to have a single person responsible for oversight of funds, and that person may have maintained control even after his or her children have long left the system. A faculty member who oversees a given discipline – for instance, the band director, the football coach, or the Spanish teacher for Spanish Club – shouldn’t really handle or make decisions about money raised by the group, yet this happens time and time again. And in several cases, the district employee “in charge” of student-raised funds has been seen counting money with no one else observing, or with a member of his or her own family in that role.
Such a relaxed attitude might advance the type of trust educators and parents want to engender among group members and the students, but it’s also an invitation to mischief – either for those inclined toward it, or for those rendered desperate by financial straits or substance abuse. The latter is presumably the situation TPS officials were trying to imply in their assumption of Frazier’s wrongdoing. They had no evidence, and their allegations would not have held up in a court of law. But this is a school district, and “moral turpitude” clauses can be used to oust teachers with no proof of wrongdoing, but rather a hint of scandal that could affect the district’s reputation or its ability to maintain an atmosphere conducive to learning.
Superintendent Lisa Presley said TPS wants to be a good steward of the students’ and the public’s money, and we take her at her word. There are many steps she and other administrators can take to ensure such a travesty never occurs again.
Those in charge of student-raised funds should include not just the director of the program in question, but others staff members, or perhaps even parent or student representatives. All members of a booster group should be privy to the records, and all should have a democratic say – through elected representation or majority vote. In any case, funds should be counted more than once, and should be temporarily stored in a safe that, ideally, needs two people to open. Deposits should be made following the collection of the money, or if the hour is late, the next day – or they could be signature-sealed and taken to a central location accessible only to a handful of people.
TPS would do well to engage not just an attorney, but a CPA or financial planner for some savvy advice. A heightened level of accountability will not only protect the valuable funds students work so hard to raise, but may save the job of a good educator.