Local teacher, parent and booster club member Gena Smith speaks to the RISD Board of Education Friday afternoon to express concerns about proposed booster club policy changes. “I feel we raised our money,” she says, “and we should be able to spend it as we see fit.” (Lisa Dunlap Photo)
The Roswell school district’s efforts to revise its booster club and parent organization policies to comply with state and federal laws regarding equity drew a crowd to a special board meeting Friday afternoon as booster club officials and parents expressed worries that they would be “paralyzed” and “discouraged” in their work to support student activities.
The Roswell Independent School District Board of Education ended up tabling the discussion about the proposed changes after hearing from a lawyer for the district, as well as seven booster club members and parents.
A committee, to include Interim Superintendent Susan Sanchez, two board members and possibly a coach, a booster club representative and a parent, will consider the revisions before they bring revisions back to the board for further consideration at some point in the future.
The proposed revisions have been recommended to comply with federal Title IX legislation and the New Mexico School Athletic Equity Act, Geno Zamora of Ortiz and Zamora Attorneys At Law explained. The latest suggested revisions follow changes adopted about a year earlier designed to reduce the chances of intentional or unintentional misuse of funds. Those revisions were adopted coincidentally just as two local women were charged with embezzlement of Roswell High School cheerleading booster club funds, charges the women have denied.
“If you read the edits without this background, the changes don’t make sense and they might even sound scary. My gosh, they are trying to take us over,” Zamora said.
Steve Shanor was among the members of the public to urge more consideration of the proposed revisions. “I encourage you to table it. Give the current policy another year and see if it is sufficient.”
He and others explained that the previous policy revisions had encouraged many district-affiliated booster clubs to become independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit groups so that they would not have to turn over funds to the district for monitoring and disbursement.
The change to independent status, they said, means that their groups not only underwent a lot of effort to meet necessary requirements, but also that they are now under even higher scrutiny than the school district can provide because they must comply with Internal Revenue Service regulations.
Asked by board member James Edwards why additional revisions were needed, Zamora answered, “I understand that a year and half ago, it was a big change just to get this policy on the books. … What is missing is the tracking.”
Zamora said that federal and state laws, and court precedent, have established that all booster fund disbursements must be closely accounted for to ensure that public school educational programs and activities are equitable, primarily to ensure that girls’ and boys’ activities are treated the same. However, the provisions also can pertain to race and other protected categories.
Public school districts are on notice that they will be audited and that they will be required to redistribute funds should inequities exist due either to district appropriations or fundraising efforts, Zamora said. He gave examples of cases enforced by the Office of Civil Rights that required school districts to bring their polices and practices into compliance.
The risks of noncompliance, Zamora said, include lawsuits, lengthy and intensive audits, substantial legal fees and the potential loss of federal funding.
One controversial issue was due to a misunderstanding.
The proposed revisions mistakenly indicated that the school district could decided to use 501(c)(3) funds to redress inequities. Zamora clarified that, in fact, the independent booster clubs can choose to allow their funds to be used in that way but do not have to do so. Only for district-affiliated clubs will the district have the authority to decide to use funds to equal out spending.
Still other concerns existed. Some asked how it can be possible to achieve equity between teams with different needs and numbers of members or between schools with different programs. They also objected to a proposed revision that would bar independent nonprofits from making expenditures directly on their own. Instead, the suggested revision would require the nonprofit groups to provide money to the district that the district would then disburse to pay for eligible expenses, that provision being implemented to allow the district to track all spending.
“I agree that we need checks and balances,” said Renee Fitts, “but, the way it is written, it is paralyzing.”
She and others explained that often their efforts as booster club leaders include buying light meals or snacks for athletes who otherwise might go hours without food.
Board member Alan Gedde said he understands that point, remembering once when an unexpected breakdown of a bus required people to wait hours for a new school bus to arrive because funds weren’t available for other options. “You can’t tie people up in ways that says, ‘Well, you didn’t plan for this.’”
Zamora responded that perhaps there could be other ways to handle the expenditure tracking, such as allowing booster clubs to provide “certified” evidence of expenditures.
The problem with that option, however, Zamora said, is that the district cannot deny the expenditure on the grounds that it will create an inequity, which the district can do if the funds are required to go through the district in the first place.
Another speaker urged the board to revise the policies so that they do not state two signatures are required, given that electronic banking systems now allow transactions without signatures. Others called the federal and state equity laws “vague” or simply expressed frustration with the situation.
“I think the biggest mistake education ever made was to accept a dime from federal government because it causes overreach and results in regulations that defy common sense,” said Annette Eaker.
“Basically you are discouraging people from being involved in booster clubs,” she added, to the applause of others in the room.
Board member Ruben Sanchez said that he was the one who first called for the earlier changes in 2016.
“I don’t want people to think that this is an attack on anybody,” he said. “We are doing what we think is best.”
Zamora also said that policy changes are being enacted by school districts statewide, although only by a few so far.
“It costs a lot less to be proactive than reactive,” he said.
Board Vice President Mona Kirk assured people that, as one of the two board members to serve on the committee working on the revisions, “we will look at all of this. We are not going to jump to any conclusions.”
Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 310, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.