Police call Riverbank PTA budget 'suspicious'

RIVERBANK -- Has someone been stealing money from kids here?

That's what police hope to answer for the Rio Altura Elementary School Parent Teacher Association, which is trying to track down thousands of dollars in charitable funds meant to promote educational opportunities for school kids.

Law enforcement officials say last year's PTA record-keeping is suspicious. Police have two suspects, but Chief Tim Beck would not disclose their names.

"We can't comment on the investigation because it's on- going," he said.

Current Rio Altura PTA President Paula Jaramillo requested the investigation after state PTA auditors found discrepancies in the club's financial records about two months ago.

Police won't say how much money is unaccounted for, but Jaramillo has filed an insurance claim for $14,000. PTAs generally carry insurance to cover lost funds, said Brenda Steffen, vice president of leadership for the California PTA.

PTAs also generally conduct two internal audits yearly and require that every check bear two members' signatures before the bank can cash them, Steffen said. It is not clear whether last year's Rio Altura PTA leadership followed these procedures. The club failed to conduct at least one audit that should have been done before Jaramillo took office, she said.

Since taking office in July, Jaramillo has implemented a strict accounting process, she said.

"Forms are required for everything. I told one board member 'If you want one dollar reimbursed, you better have it approved and the forms in order,' " said Jaramillo, who also has moved the club's account to another bank.

Questions arose after the school district approved the Riverbank Language Academy, which is housed at Rio Altura. PTA members decided to split into two groups: one for Rio Altura Elementary School and another for the charter school, said Riverbank Unified School District Superintendent Joe Ga- lindo. Before the split could happen, the state PTA had to audit the group's finances. That's when the discrepancies were found, he said.

Issues such as this are rare with the PTA, Steffen said.

"It doesn't happen as much as people would like to believe, but it does happen. When we find out about it, we send someone in," she said.

Had the club's officers fol- lowed PTA procedures and taken advantage of financial training, they could have avoided problems such as this, Steffen and Jaramillo agreed.

"We are all volunteers, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't make sure things are done correctly. There are so many opportunities to get trained, claiming ignorance doesn't cut it," Jara-millo said. "I just want the community to know this is not acceptable, and I'll do everything within my power to keep our finances straight."

Anyone in the club should be able to ask for and get a copy of the treasurer's report in the future, Jaramillo said. If it doesn't happen in a timely fashion, people should ask why, she added.

Bee staff writer Eve Hightower can be reached at 578-2382 or ehightower@modbee.com.