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'No red flag' was seen in Edgerton PTA theft

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Stacy Vogel
September 4, 2009
— When Melanie Simmons took over as PTA president at Edgerton Community Elementary School last year, she was happy to have a veteran treasurer in Kim Kienitz, she said.

Kienitz, the group’s treasurer for four years, was the go-to person for questions, Simmons said. She always was willing to pitch in and help.


So Simmons hasn’t gotten over the shock of learning last week that police say Kienitz confessed to stealing more than $11,000 from the PTA account.


“There was no red flag really saying she was doing this,” Simmons said.


Now, the PTA is trying to figure out just how much money is missing and how it’s going to pay off a $10,500 vendor bill.


“These programs and things that we normally do that are a given, those are all up in the air right now,” Simmons said.


Simmons discovered the problem after receiving a notice from Mr. Z’s Fundraising saying the $10,500 bill from the school’s spring cookie-dough sale hadn’t been paid, she said.


At first, Kienitz told Simmons the check hadn’t cleared and that she was stopping payment on the first check and issuing another one, Simmons said.


But a week later, the vendor still hadn’t been paid.


Simmons checked the PTA’s account at Blackhawk Community Credit Union and found it contained a lot less than it should have, she said. Worse, she found copies of five checks for a total of almost $6,200 written to Kienitz, according to the criminal complaint.


Simmons called the school and Edgerton police Aug. 25.


The next day, Kienitz called police and confessed to stealing more than $11,000 from the account over two years, according to the criminal complaint. She said her family had been having financial problems and she issued herself checks from the PTA account to pay her mortgage, utility and other bills, according to the complaint.


“She took (money) in little increments, and it just accumulated to the point where she couldn’t cover this big check,” Simmons said.


Kienitz presented a monthly treasurer’s report to the PTA, but she was the only one to see the financial records, Simmons said. The PTA used to have a yearly audit done, but Kienitz quietly stopped ordering it starting in 2007-08, Simmons said.


“There’s got to be, obviously, more checks and balances put in place and a whole new set of rules we have to follow to make sure this never happens again,” she said.


Simmons doesn’t consider herself naïve, but before this happened, she wouldn’t have believed a PTA officer would steal from children.


“It makes you sick, just because it’s kids’ money,” she said. “The kids, the families work for that money.”


The PTA makes most of its money through a catalogue sale in fall, raising about $25,000 a year, Simmons said. The money pays for field trips, textbooks and programs.


The group had hoped to buy SMART Boards for the school this year, but now Simmons doesn’t know if that will be possible. The PTA is checking with its insurance company to see if it will cover the unpaid vendor bill.


“We might have to have a fundraiser to pay that money back,” she said.


“That’s what’s sad about the whole thing. The kids are going to suffer.”


Other cases

The money missing from the PTA at Edgerton Community Elementary School isn’t the first theft from a nonprofit group in Rock County:


-- In March, Deborah L. Wright, Beloit, was charged with embezzling $53,000 from Faith Little Friends Day Care at Faith Lutheran Church in Janesville, where she was director. Police say she paid her mortgage and vacation-club payments with church dollars. Her case remains in court.


-- In 2008, Sue Mehlert, Milton, was ordered to pay $2,300 restitution to Hope Lutheran Church after pleading no contest to theft charges. Police said Mehlert stole money from weekly donation bags and from the church youth group by fudging account records.


She also pleaded guilty to Dane County charges of stealing student offerings at Martin Luther Christian Day School, Stoughton, where she served as administrator.


-- In 2007, secretary Melinda Quinn pleaded guilty to stealing $47,000 from Milton High School over five years by switching cash and checks.


After each case, the organization involved changed the way employees and volunteers handle money. That’s what the Edgerton Community Elementary PTA plans to do, too, President Melanie Simmons said.


No organization should allow one person to control the purse strings, said Capt. Todd Christiansen with the Rock County Sheriff’s Office.


“It’s never a good idea just having one person responsible for money, especially if it’s not their money,” he said.


Treasurers should be supervised by people with knowledge of bookkeeping or accounting, and nonprofit financial records should be open, he said.


“If a person knows their figures are being checked, it makes it a little harder to steal,” he said. “You’d be surprised how many places, even businesses, don’t do that, or not often enough.”


Organizations should conduct regular audits by outside companies, he said.


The PTA used to have annual audits, but treasurer Kim Kienitz stopped ordering them in 2007-08, Simmons said.


From now on, multiple people will check the financial records, and the group might hire an accounting firm to deal with checks, Simmons said.


“We haven’t even gotten into that yet,” she said. “We just know that there’s got to be some changes made.”



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