PTA Appears to Reject Request for Financial Data from Council Member

As PPF Decisions Near, Conflict Over PTA Finances Flairs

Updated 2 weeks ago David Stone

 

As PPF Decisions Near, Conflict Over PTA Finances Flairs
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

After a troubled year during which a request for Public Purpose Funds for an unqualified applicant was rammed through RIOC like a Republican tax bill in Congress, hopes were, this go ‘round, the process, led largely by community volunteers from the RIRA Common Council, would go smoothly, but unsettled disputes involving PS/IS 217 and its PTA instead hit a bumpy road.

PPF Grants: Late Again & Controversy Too

In 2016, the Common Council’s Public Purpose Fund Committee was rushed to act hastily because RIOC, source for the funds, was slow in getting applicants through its own pipeline to the Council.

Compensating for the delay fell in the lap of Chair Dave Evans and the PPF Committee. Last year, his team recommended a substantial grant for the Roosevelt Island Senior Association, unaware that RIOC failed to properly vet the group’s qualification for funds.

Over the next six months, RIOC brushed aside resident protests and shepherded RISA through application procedures long after a deadline every other applicant met, throwing shade on what should be a welcome and uncontroversial gift from the State agency.

But with RISA failing to make the cut, this year, hopes were that another round of battles could be avoided.

Those hopes were unrealistic, given vexing battles involving PS/IS 217 and its PTA in the past year, battles that flexibility and transparency may well have tempered, if not ended.

2017: Year of Conflict Between the Community and PS/IS 217

It’s hard to imagine a public school in such a small community awash with more controversy than PS/IS 217 and its embattled Principal Mandana Beckman.

Anger came to a head in September when, at the start of a new school year, a dissident group put up posters announcing “Beckman you have to go” at a number of Island locations.

Beckman supporters soon tore them - and others rushed in as replacements - down, and the Main Street WIRE led a charge aimed at arresting protestors, categorizing them as criminals. Officials from RIOC President Susan Rosenthal to City Council Member Ben Kallos were quoted as suppressing the protestors’ rights to free speech already well-established in in the U.S..

Protest posters put up in September, torn down and condemned by the PTA and others
Protest posters put up in September, torn down and condemned by the PTA and others

PTA President Erin Olavesen said, “There seem to be a few frighteningly aggressive individuals who want to attack our school. I don’t know who they are exactly, but it is not normal to hang posters up around the Island with someone’s picture and the ominous threat ‘You have to to,’” mischaracterizing legitimate protest as somehow dangerous.

PTA support for Beckman was not an exception.

Earlier, the PTA stood firmly behind the Principal when careless handling of school food waste led to a rat infestation so severe the City Department of Health declared it a crisis. The rodent colony spread from the school's yard to neighboring housing complexes until resident anger and national news coverage forced the DOE to bring in heavy equipment to plow the mess over.

And the PTA didn’t blink when school employees' cars, including Beckman’s, parked illegally in an emergency vehicle access lane, endangering the safety of students as well as residents at 2 and 4 River Road, many elderly and/or disabled. Only ticketing by PSD ended the practice.

Anger only increased when the PTA advised Beckman and backed her decision to block the Roosevelt Island Youth Program as well as Island Kids from even competing for this year’s Beacon after school program.

School employee cars parked on the lawn and in the emergency vehicle access late. The Alice Childress Memorial Plaque is in between the cars.
School employee cars parked on the lawn and in the emergency vehicle access late. The Alice Childress Memorial Plaque is in between the cars.
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

RIYP initially brought Beacon to the school through the political skills of its President Charlie DeFino and had been its only provider. RIYP sources accuse Beckman of dismissing them because DeFino refused to funnel money to teachers for training exercises from funds he believed intended strictly for children.

Beckman also eliminated Island Kids, a much admired local institution with an unblemished track record for programming.

So, the protests were easy to predict, given a feeling by many that the school is insensitive to community concerns and Beckman detached and inaccessible, both conditions a PTA might be expected to ameliorate.

How the Financials Come Into Play

In the past few years, residents have begun digging deeper into how RIOC oversees PPF grants and other finances. Results have led to mistrust among some residents and stonewalling from RIOC.

Ron Davidson’s exhausting research uncovered RIOC’s mishandling of RISA’s PPF grant, and Frank Farance’s exposure of PS/IS 217’s rat problems led to international news coverage when Beckman turned a cold shoulder to concerned parents and other residents.

Recently, Farance’s skepticism about both RIOC’s handling of an RFP for managing the Roosevelt Island Youth Center, where bidding had never before been thought necessary, and Beckman’s decision to throw RIYP out of the Beacon program, coalesced around a suspected unified effort to put an Island institution out of business by replacing it with newcomers and outsiders. 

In the flux of things, the PS/IS 217’s PTA financing raises another aspect to be considered as residents dig into what some believe to be a history of dishonest dealing and backroom maneuvering.

PTA financials came into play when the group applied for a PPF grant as they’ve done successfully before.

Public Purpose Funds are awarded only to IRS qualified 501(c)3 and 501(c)4 nonprofits. Among requirements for tax exemption under those certifications, the corporations agree to financial transparency, a condition intended to bolster public acceptance, including making their federal tax filings publicly available.

In the past year, Davidson’s research showed that RISA had unexplained errors in its filing, a situation made more critical by the discovery of hundreds of thousands in thefts during its operation of the Senior Center, demonstrated RIOC’s deeply flawed process in qualifying applicants. 

One result is that not all residents take RIOC’s vetting as reliable, leading to Farance’s attention to the PS/IS 217 PTA's finances.

Questions About PTA Budget

After a meeting in September, as PPF applications were working their way through RIOC, Farance emailed PTA Co-Treasurer Ben Torrance a follow up question.

“Could you send me a copy of your presentation of expenses to be approved in your motion on Wednesday night?  I tried writing down what you were saying, but there were only a couple categories and no specific numbers. And I couldn't read the spreadsheet, even though I was in the 5th or 6th row.  Thanks.”

Although Farance’s request did not ask for anything not already public, Torrance did not respond.

Farance wrote Torrance again after seeing PTA President Erin Olavesen’s PPF presentation in November.

“I saw Erin at the Public Purpose Funds meeting, where she said that your finances are open and transparent.  

“That hasn't been my experience with the PTA and, as reported to me both by other PTA members and PTA executive board members, they have had no luck getting financial information from you, i.e., many have experience that the PTA's finances are not transparent.”

As PPF Decisions Near, Conflict Over PTA Finances Flairs
Photo courtesy of Frank Farance

An alternate Common Council member from Island House, Farance asked Torrance to supply information to RIOC as well as members of the Common Council PPF Committee:

  • A copy of the presentation made to the parents at the September 13 meeting, including a copy of the motion to approve the ($250k?) expenses for 2017-2018.
  • A copy of the monthly spreadsheet for the 2015-2016, 2016-2017, and (year-to-date) the 2017-2018 school years, which shows income/expense per category and on a month-by-month basis.
  • The end of year PTA Annual Financial report that details expenses and income for the years ending in 2016 and 2017.

Still patient, Farance handed Olavesen a handwritten note about his inability to get information from Torrance, asking her to set up a meeting.

Olavesen reacted angrily, as Farance described the incident in an email to both Olavesen and Torrance and copied to RIOC and Common Council representatives. 

“At the Public Purpose Fund presentations when Dave Evans asked the PTA about financial transparency, Erin said there was no problem with financial transparency and one just needed to ask. Well after Erin's presentation at the PPF, I mentioned it to you (Olavesen) nicely in a note, and you gave such a large/loud outburst/reaction (No! I'm not going to arrange for a meeting for you!) that Erica Spencer-EL of RIOC came over right away and asked 'What Happened?'"

Farance added, “The response I've documented here (and witnessed by RIOC staff and RIRA PPF committee members) is representative of what other PTA members experience when they ask about finances in the PTA (which happens also to be a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit charity), i.e., the hiding and withholding of information.”

Conclusion

I asked PS/IS 217 PTA President Erin Olavesen to comment for this article. She has not, much as she has refused to comment here in the past. This mirrors policy followed by School Principal Mandana Beckman: Respond only to questions from the Main Street WIRE

Building barriers to members of the community not completely happy with PS/IS 217's administration is something the PTA ought to resist, not participate in. The school and the PTA's current policy of withholding information and exercising media censorship are community offenses.

It's impossible to tell whether the Common Council and RIOC will approve, ignore or discourage unacceptable conduct in the distribution of community resourced funds, but it's one avenue where policies can encourage the openness that should be automatic among applicants.

We'll get an idea when the PPF Committee presents its recommendations for grants on Wednesday in the Common Council's scheduled monthly meeting.

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