A.C. Flora High School and its athletics booster club recently have tightened the reins on the club’s finances after dogged questioning by fathers of two students.
But those fathers, Wes Few and Craig Freeman, say that’s not enough. They say the changes are superficial and don’t really open the cash-flush club to proper scrutiny. Neither the school, the club nor Richland School District 1 has shown the parents or The State newspaper how money has been raised or spent.
Few and Freeman, fathers of former players on the school’s showcase Falcons baseball team, have been pressing since September 2015 to see the financial books. Like parents of all players, they’ve contributed thousands of dollars through never-ending fundraisers, baseball camps and other income drivers for the team, they said.
The club is the chief fundraising arm for Flora sports teams. It has raised at least tens of thousands of dollars, particularly through the baseball program, for player equipment, field maintenance and other improvements, according to some documents made available by parents.
And that revenue does not include what is likely the club’s single largest source of steady income: almost $500,000 in tax dollars provided by the city of Forest Acres over the past dozen years.
The fathers are not alleging money has been spent improperly. They just don’t know how much was raised and how it was spent. And they want to see the books.
Early this month, the school announced it had conducted a review of financial procedures and made bookkeeping changes in the booster club to “ensure the most accurate and secure controls.”
Few called the Feb. 2 open letter from Principal Richard McClure to booster club parents about the review “a worthy attempt to skirt the issue. I’d say it’s a half truth.”
“They still haven’t explained where the money ... went,” said Freeman, who estimates he has contributed $6,000 to the club because his son, now a senior, played on Flora’s developmental, junior varsity and varsity baseball teams.
The newspaper on Jan. 30 filed an open-records request to review the club’s books, including the financial review, which was completed late last year.
Three days after that request, McClure released the review by the accounting firm McDowell Pearman. The principal told parents the review resulted in “modified procedures and practices.”
The review was not an audit. How much money was raised and spent or whether any funds might be missing were not part of the review.
McClure’s letter said the financial examination was done because Flora athletic programs had “tremendous growth and success.” Leading the way are baseball teams that have won four state championships in their class. Three of those were consecutive, making the Falcons the first then-Class 3-A baseball team to achieve that milestone.
The newspaper’s request for interviews with McClure or booster club president and parent of two Flora students, George McCuthchen, have gone unanswered. Coach Andy Hallett directed a reporter to McClure or Flora athletics director, Ed Moore.
“There’s nothing to talk about,” Moore said Friday in a brief telephone interview. “We released a report about a week ago. We’ve released all the information we’re going to.”
Few, an attorney who is a longtime club member, has twin sons at the school who used to play baseball. He calculates he has contributed as much as $8,000 for his three sons. Few discounts the report. “It certainly sounds like a cover-up, doesn’t it?”
Watchdog authority over sports booster clubs is left largely to school districts. Neither the state Department of Education nor the S.C. High School League has oversight powers, those agencies said.
It remains unclear to most parents how much money has passed through the baseball team, and Hallett, its coach of nearly 20 years and chief fundraiser.
“Over the years, people would bring up the question: Where does the money go?” said Few, whose brother is on the S.C. Supreme Court. “But everyone was afraid to ask.”
Freeman, an insurance agent, agrees. “There are more parents that would come forward,” he said, “but they’re concerned about it hurting (the playing time of) their children.”
Open the books
What the principal didn’t say in his letter this month is that the persistence of Few and Freeman led to hiring the accounting firm and adoption of the suggestions the firm made three months earlier.
In a Jan. 30 email to Few, the principal wrote: “I will always be most appreciative of your requests related to baseball financials. Your inquiries led to a broader, much needed analysis.”
McDowell Pearman – which said specifically that its review stopped short of an audit – found “material weaknesses” and “significant deficiencies” in the club’s financial protocols.
Had the firm been hired to conduct a full audit, “Other matters might have come to our attention,” their report states.
Few said the school and club for months portrayed the report as an audit, which involves a deeper dive into the books and access to full financial information.
Still, McDowell Pearman reported that envelopes of cash and money are left for the club treasurer or at the school office. “There is no clear accounting trail of these funds and no assurance that they are properly handled,” the accountants wrote.
They suggested tighter controls, hiring a bookkeeping service, the use of uniform, signed receipts and a log of signed checks among a series of recommendations.
The two fathers have supplied the newspaper with more than three dozen email exchanges with the principal, the coach, booster club presidents, the school’s athletics director and the club treasurer.
The emails show they were given pledges of transparency. But responses they received questioned Few’s standing to see records and responses grew resistant.
Few was asked to show proof he was a booster club member. He did. The club supplied a profit-and-loss statement for the program and both fathers were told that money for a long-planned locker room had been spent. The locker room has not been built, but $10,000 was paid to an architect for a design, according to documents provided to the fathers, who then shared them with the newspaper.
Those documents, while limited, include the profit-and-loss document that shows the team had a deficit of $675 in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2014; a $37,542 loss the next year and a $24,621 loss the year that ended last June. Overall, that’s a three-year deficit of $68,838.
Freeman and Few said the figures provided them were merely numbers on a page, were changed or were missing some income – primarily the allocations from Forest Acres that have averaged $39,000 yearly.
Neither father believes the numbers because they haven’t been allowed to see the books. “To say, ‘We wrote it down in the ledger.’ Well, that’s not an answer,” Freeman said.
Big-ticket baseball program
Hallett, a native of upstate New York, has coached Flora teams that regularly qualify for playoffs and have winning records.
While the booster club’s books have not been opened, the club has received $467,200 in meal tax revenue from Forest Acres since July 1, 2006, city records show. Hallett is the point person for the tax money and usually picks up the checks himself, said Mark Williams, Forest Acres’ city administrator.
From information publicly available, the city money for the Forest Acres Classic tournament appears to be the club’s single largest, reliable annual contribution. That public money comes from the 2 percent tax paid largely by patrons of Forest Acres restaurants and bars.
Flora’s baseball tournament qualifies for the money because it attracts participants from out of state and the tourists spend money while here, Williams said.
Neither the school, the club nor Hallett provided the city with a detailed accounting of how the public money is spent or of how many tourists attended, which is the basis for spending meal tax, or “hospitality” tax,” money as outlined in state law.
“Mostly, it’s a verbal report,” Williams said of details about the use of the money. “Sometimes, they just provide us a brochure on the event. We’ve not really tried to quantify that. We’ve thumb-nailed it sometimes.”
Still, the city administrator said of the tournament, “We’re confident that it’s worth investing in.”
Hallett’s push for revenue from parents to operate the program is nonstop, Freeman and Few said.
Players are expected to sell – which really means their parents often buy – retail discount cards, banners and commemorative bricks. Parents also pay for baseball camps and player development programs. And they help collect cash at the canteen and pay booster club dues.
“Please continue to sell your discount cards. The budget needed all 19,000 if we are to pay the bill,” Hallett wrote in a March 12, 2015, email to parents. Discount cards cost $400.
“Also,” the coach wrote, “I need all of you to sell, or renew one banner.” Banners cost between $400 and $800 each, said Few, who calculates that in 2014 banner sales produced at least $22,400.
“The booster club is just people doing things the way they’ve always been done,” Few said.
“If the bookkeeping is off, wouldn’t that money show up somewhere else?” Freeman asked. “Until they can prove otherwise, I have to think the money is gone.”
Club bylaws and district rules
The state education department has little say over booster clubs, said Ryan Brown, spokesman for the agency. “There is basically none,” he said of authority to affect club finances. “That’s kind of left up to individual (school) districts.”
The S.C. High School League also has no authority over booster clubs, said league spokeswoman Tammie Newman.
Booster clubs usually are set up as nonprofit organizations, which allows donors to deduct their contributions from their taxes.
Under a state law that took effect in April 2009, school districts are required to disclose any club expenditure that exceeds $100 if the club gets public money, according to a February 2011 legal opinion from the S.C. Attorney General’s office, the newspaper found.
After months of back and forth over numbers and Few’s research of booster club and district policies, he reached at least one conclusion. “What I do know is that district bylaws were being violated,” he said.
Richland 1 policy leaves accounting decisions largely to individual booster clubs.
“Each organization will establish its own system of collecting, depositing and disbursing funds,” according to a board policy that dates to February 2007. Asked if the district has an updated policy, spokeswoman Karen York said any answer would be part of the newspaper’s open-records request, which allows up to three weeks for a response.
The 2007 policy offers suggestions but does not require checks and balances on managing money.
Still, the district policy does state: “All capital improvements, facility improvements and major equipment purchases will require superintendent and board approval.” Information was not publicly available that would show whether that happened at Flora.
Separately, the bylaws for Flora’s booster club, adopted in November 2015, state: “This policy stipulates that only the president and the treasurer are to handle the funds of the organization.” But the rules also say, “No other members are authorized to hold, deposit, or remove funds from accounts held by ‘AC Flora High School Athletic Booster Clubs, Inc.’” The bylaws are silent on coaches having a financial role in the club.
In an example of cash not going to the club president or the treasurer, Hallett wrote in a March, 12, 2015, email to parents, “When you have canteen duty ... give money box to coach Hallett or (then-assistant) coach (Chris) Brew.”
Few said the way the club’s finances have been handled amounts to nothing less than a betrayal of trust.