The story behind a high school booster club shutdown

The principal of Birdville High School in North Texas ordered the shutdown of the drill team’s booster club this year after school officials and booster club parents clashed over money and personalities.

The club was forced to notify the Internal Revenue Service of its termination, losing its valuable tax-free status.

As readers of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Dave Lieber Watchdog column learned first, parents who had been on the board tell me they were concerned about poor record-keeping procedures for money transfers and cash deposits involving the club’s nonprofit charity account and the school account for the Birdville High Golden Motion Drill Team.

Birdville school district officials say they had a different concern: high costs for the planned team banquet. Some parents didn’t want to cut back, officials said.

District spokesman Mark Thomas said the booster club was trying to run the team instead of leaving it to the team’s director, Allison Stevens. On this, Texas University Interscholastic League rules for booster clubs are clear: A school is responsible for club activities; all decisions are ultimately up to school officials.

Principal Jason Wells said he ordered the club’s dissolution in March because volunteer club leaders were no longer acting “in the best interests of the kids.”

He added, “Everyone was just kind of getting mean-spirited.”

How? Daughters on the team were coming to school and sniping at one another based on what they heard at home, the principal said. After the school PTSA president conducted her own investigation, a drill team member posted the results on Facebook. The principal asked that the document be removed.

High costs caused much of the friction. In an e-mail to club President Ruby Hudnall, the drill team director complained that the spring banquet would cost $368 per child, not including a $45-per-parent charge. Other clubs spent $66 to $100 for their banquets, she wrote.

“I understand that we spend more per child than any organization on campus or any drill team in the area,” Stevens wrote. “I believe we can cut costs and in turn cut stress.”

Stevens preferred to spend any available money on uniform and competition costs, officials say. (The district did not make Stevens available for an interview.)

Parents said the banquet was the highlight of the year for the students. “This is like their prom,” one told me.

Parents, for their part, say they asked questions about loans that Stevens made from the booster club account to the school account. Parents were also confused about $3,000 they collected from four Sonic fundraisers. Parents said that they gave the money to Stevens but that they couldn’t find any references in school and bank account records, even after they made an open-records request.

The principal explained later in an e-mail to the booster club that Stevens told him that the money “went straight through the school account.” School officials explained that after an audit of the school account, they were satisfied that everything was handled properly.

The parents said they inquired partly because of a request by Stevens to drill team parents.

In a Dec. 9 e-mail, Stevens wrote that she promised to help a needy Birdville district family for the holidays. She asked for help in buying the mother a winter jacket, sweater and shoes. “If you could send any donations by Friday so that I can shop over the weekend, that would be great! Please send cash only if possible,” Stevens wrote. (Her intent was that she didn’t have time to cash checks because she wanted to shop immediately, district officials say.)

Several parents told me that they felt uncomfortable with the request for cash. Parents said they later asked to see receipts but never did.

The principal told me, “Ms. Stevens has been asked to make sure that she doesn’t ask for cash in the future. She’s not going to do any charitable work without funneling that through the school account first.”

In early March, Stevens met with the booster club leaders to clear the air. Parents say they thought the meeting went well. But Stevens surprised the parents by complaining in an e-mail about how it “ended with tension and distaste.”

An assistant principal wrote the club president, chastising her: “Once again, the tone of your emails to Ms. Stevens concerns me. It is certainly not conducive to creating a positive relationship.”

The president wrote back, “I don’t understand how you think I have a tone. I have done my best to communicate with Allie in a non-threatening way.”

The principal asked that Stevens be included in all booster club meetings. But later he learned that several club members had met without her.

Parents said it wasn’t a meeting; they were training a new member. The principal canceled the club’s next meeting. A week later, he announced his demand that the board dissolve and terminate its nonprofit charity status with the IRS.

The school canceled the scheduled banquet at a Grapevine hotel and moved it to a school facility. Parents said they lost almost $5,000 in unused decorations and food because of deposits.

The night the banquet was supposed to be held, parents drove to the hotel and picked up meals for which they had paid. They traveled in a caravan to the Presbyterian Night Shelter and donated the 80 chicken dinners.

Jennifer LePla, last year’s PTSA president, conducted her own investigation. She affirmed the administration’s decision, finding that the booster club violated its constitution by failing “to promote community interest” in the club, failing to instill “the spirit of cooperation” and by acting in ways “detrimental to the welfare” of the club.

There’s no booster club now.

The principal explained, “By the time all the dust settled, there were a lot of hurt feelings. I just thought it was best to let some feelings heal before I pursue it.”

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Read other recent Watchdog Nation reports on schools:

When communicating becomes a chore

Scammers: Don’t mess with kids!

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Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation. The new 2010 edition of his book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, is out. Revised and expanded, the book won two national book awards in 2009 for social change. Twitter @DaveLieber

Dave Lieber book that won two national awards for social change.

Scammers: Don’t mess with kids! gets dozens of letters and e-mails each week, but one that really tugged at us was the case of the 16 Texas middle schoolers and their teacher who lost $2,000 to a fictitious publishing company in Indiana. The students wrote a book called Locker Letters. Their original book signing at a Barnes & Noble store in the spring was held — but it may have been the first book signing in history where the books weren’t even printed. When a police detective visited the publishing company owner at the listed company offices, he found a disheveled man in a bathrobe coming to the door of a rickety home in a trailer park. To catch up, you can read here the previous Dave Lieber column, which first appeared in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

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# # # Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation. The new 2010 edition of his book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, is out. Revised and expanded, the book won two national book awards in 2009 for social change. Twitter @DaveLieber

Dave Lieber's self-publishing guide shows authors how to do it yourselves, save money, make money and avoid getting scammed.