Broward County

Stoneman Douglas parent group barred from collecting donations during audit

Maroon "MSD Strong" T-shirts helped raise money for the Marjory Stoneman Douglas PTSA.
Maroon "MSD Strong" T-shirts helped raise money for the Marjory Stoneman Douglas PTSA.

A parent group that played a major role in fundraising efforts after the February shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School has been suspended and barred from accepting donations while the Florida PTA conducts an audit into its finances.

In a June 14 letter to outgoing and incoming members of the school's Parent Teacher Student Association, Florida PTA President Cindy Gerhardt said the group may not be acting in accordance with state PTA standards and asked it to turn over a slew of documents from the past year.

During the suspension, the Stoneman Douglas PTSA cannot accept donations, spend money or hold meetings. Gerhardt said the Broward County Council of PTAs/PTSAs will hold onto new donations and return them to the PTSA once the audit is complete.

The decision did not stem from any wrongdoing by the Stoneman Douglas PTSA, Gerhardt said, but rather came in response to the group asking for help with its annual audit. As the fiscal year comes to a close, the PTSA is transitioning to new leadership and attempting to keep track of a huge spike in funds.

Parent-teacher associations in Florida are required to submit gross receipts to the Florida PTA as of June 30 each year as part of an annual audit. Gerhardt said there was concern that the outgoing PTSA would not complete its internal audit before new leadership took over July 1.

"In a typical PTA, this summer transition audit would be an easy endeavor, but for this unit, the scrutiny is overwhelming," Gerhardt said in an email. "We're hoping to expedite the audit so that the members of the PTSA feel confident in beginning a new school year with a thriving unit."

In the June 14 letter, Gerhardt directed the Stoneman Douglas PTSA to turn over documents by the next day, including bank statements, checkbooks, debit and credit cards, shopping club membership cards and receipts. Gerhardt said this would allow the Broward County Council to initiate an outside audit.

The group appears to be handling far more money than ever before. Each year between 2009 and 2016, the Stoneman Douglas PTSA reported gross receipts to the IRS below $50,000. After the shooting, the PTSA said on its website it had raised over $200,000 for the victims' families by selling "MSD Strong" T-shirts.

According to Gerhardt, "every dime" donated to the Stoneman Douglas PTSA before last Thursday has either been turned over to the school to fund security measures or allocated to other PTSA projects.

She said the suspension was initially set at 60 days but could potentially be completed in a few weeks.

"Our goal is to bring your association into compliance with established PTA guidelines," she wrote.

Max Schachter, whose 14-year-old son Alex was among the 17 people killed in the Feb. 14 massacre, denounced the suspension and suggested it may have been politically motivated. Just days ago, Schachter said, members of the PTSA had discussed the possibility of becoming a PTO — an independent organization that would be free from oversight and fees from the Florida PTA.

"I think that the incoming PTA was looking at the flexibility that a PTO offered," Schachter said in an interview. "And then, two days later, they shut the whole thing down. It just is too big of a coincidence."

Several other parents lamented the move in comments on Schachter's Facebook page.

Gerhardt denied any connection between the suspension and a possible switch to the PTO model, saying the issue was "not within our scope or concern at this time."

Schachter said he had been collaborating with the PTSA on a school safety task force, and that the suspension would hinder these efforts.

"There are audits that have to be done every year," he said. "Why did they need to shut the whole PTA down right before they were trying to make preparations to make this school safe?"

Outgoing PTSA President Kim Patanovic and incoming president Chanda James did not respond to requests for comment.

Tracy Clark, a spokesperson for Broward County Public Schools, deferred questions to the Broward County Council PTA/PTSA. Earlyn Barton, the president of the Broward County Council, directed questions to Gerhardt.

Gerhardt suggested the suspension had led to a "wave of misinformation and speculation" in recent days — namely, accusations that the Florida PTA was confiscating previously collected funds; that the Stoneman Douglas PTSA had been completely shut down; and that there had been wrongdoing committed by PTSA leadership.

"These are absolutely untrue," Gerhardt said. "We simply needed to pause the intake of new donations, outgoing expenditures and complete an audit as soon as possible."