Sports groups wonder where TPS facility rental fees went
BY ANDREA EGER World Staff Writer
Sunday, February 10, 2013
2/10/13 at 8:13 AM
Read the email correspondence about
athletic facilities rentals
Organizers of youth and adult sports groups say they have paid thousands of dollars in recent years to play and practice at Tulsa Public Schools athletic facilities, but an administrative shake-up followed by a year-long FBI investigation has left them wondering where their money went.
Federal officials have now charged former TPS Athletic Director Stephanie Spring with depositing into a personal account an unspecified amount of money in excess of $5,000 for the rental of school facilities. Her first court appearance is scheduled for Tuesday.
All rental fees should have been deposited into the school district's general fund - and that's where local soccer and football league officials believed it was going all along.
"I was so upset when the news about Stephanie came out last year because we would send money to her all the time but most of the time, believe it or not, they never gave us receipts," said Oscar Chavez, an organizer of FC Tulsa, a team that played in the National Premier Soccer League and Southern Premier Soccer League.
"I only have two or three receipts from the first year. We would ask and they would always say, 'We'll give you your receipt next time.' "
Chavez said FC Tulsa paid about $20,000 in all - mostly in cash from small fundraisers - to hold all of their 2010 and 2011 practices and home games at three local high schools - Memorial, East Central and Booker T. Washington.
"It was $100 without lights, $150 with lights, and most of the time we use the field with lights because a lot of our guys work," Chavez said. "So we have to practice at night."
He would have preferred to use just one site but was told there were too many scheduling conflicts with three Hispanic soccer leagues, which he said had 50-60 teams total playing at the Tulsa schools.
"The problem was they used to have Hispanic leagues," he said. "They were making more money with their 15 to 20 teams playing all day Saturday and most of the day Sunday than with our just one. But we were the only ones with insurance for the players and the field."
While Chavez said he believed all of the money his team was paying was going into the school district's coffers, there were occasions when red flags went up in his mind.
He said he found it odd that a man who was not employed at TPS had the keys to let them into some of the school locker rooms and on one occasion that man set off the security alarm and seemed frightened.
The last thing that raised Chavez's suspicion happened at the very last game they played on TPS property.
"We played at Booker T. Washington," he said. "The owner of the Mexican soccer league said, 'Oh, I talked to Stephanie and she said for me to collect the money because I'm going to see her this weekend.' I thought it was strange because he doesn't even work for the school."
The Tulsa World obtained hundreds of emails through an Open Records Act request that revealed Spring solicited rental fees from individuals who contacted her, directed the amounts of fees collected by an employee at East Central and a team booster club official at Memorial and dictated the division of fees between an account called "TPS Athletics," booster club accounts and off-the-books payments to school groundskeepers.
A review of TPS records shows facility rentals and leases brought in a total of $269,476 districtwide in 2010-11, the last full academic year Spring was employed there. But the school district's log of revenue received from facility rentals or leases during the same time period includes almost no records of payments for athletic facility usage.
Football coach resigned
The scandal began to unravel in fall 2011. In December of that year, East Central's athletic director and football coach, Travis Hill, was suspended. He later resigned.
Assistant Athletic Directors Latricia Pruitt and Jon Wheeler were suspended over the matter. Wheeler later resigned, but Pruitt was reinstated and now works at an alternative education program.
David Marth, youth academy director and administrator with the Blitz United Soccer Club, said his organization paid at least $2,000 in all to rent fields at East Central for off-season practice a couple of years ago. But last year Blitz United was turned away in the midst of the scandal.
"It's a shame because for our group, it was well worth the money," Marth said. "It saved our fields from the wear and tear and we were using property that taxpayers are paying for anyway and we serve kids from public schools all over the area."
Marth said he couldn't recall the exact total paid, but his club paid about $100 an hour for two-hour practice sessions on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday evenings.
Told about the allegations that some rental fees were going to line TPS employee pockets and even into some school teams' booster clubs, he responded, "My understanding is that it was supposed to help the athletic department cover costs for lighting and soccer nets. That's upsetting because I'm over a soccer booster club at Union and we are struggling to do what we need to do to support 120 players. The only money we get in is from our $50 booster club memberships from parents."
By the book
Other youth sports organizers who were contacted by the Tulsa World say they know their arrangements for TPS facilities rentals went through official channels.
Arnold Gomez heads up a new youth soccer league of about 50 players, called Liga Union Americana de Futbol. He said he provided the necessary proof of insurance and pays the TPS facilities utilization office $256 for four hours of games each Sunday for his eight-week season.
Emails from TPS showed correspondence between Vickye Wagor, longtime president of the South Tulsa Youth Football Association, and Spring in August 2011 on the subject of game scheduling at the LaFortune Stadium for the South Tulsa Raiders.
But Wagor told the Tulsa World her rental applications and payments of $26 to $30 per hour, with extra for lights at night games, have gone through official channels all five years her teams have played at Memorial High School.
"I have contracts for everything," Wagor said. "I always dealt with the (TPS) Facilities Office. I always paid with a check to Tulsa Public Schools through that office. I met Stephanie one time, just as a courtesy to put a face with my name."
Policies govern facility use
The school board's policy and regulations dictate that outside groups submit a facilities rental application to the district Facilities Utilization Office, but approval is not guaranteed.
"Permission may be granted," states the board's Regulation 8401-R, "for purposes and programs that are beneficial to the youth of the community, community at large, or the program(s) of the district, are acceptable to the superintendent or designee, do not result in an increased tax burden on the citizens of the district."
According to the same document, charges for the use of school facilities are based on the cost of operating expenses, such as utilities, supplies, maintenance and security.
Those funds are to be divided, first, to the recovery of direct expenses of the facility use, with the remainder being split - 60 percent to the school site's next academic year budget and 40 percent to the school district for "recovery of indirect expense."
Other local school districts also have policies and procedures governing the use of their publicly funded property.
Union Public Schools has a facilities committee that discusses whether to allow certain groups to use school facilities, and all rentals are routinely reported to the Union school board.
"A lot of that depends on what is occurring at the time of the requested activity throughout the district or at the requested site," said Charlie Bushyhead, assistant superintendent for support services at Union. "For activities that aren't clearly defined by policy, the committee determines what category, if any, the requesting organization falls into."
Rental charges are deposited into the district's general fund, while any related event services revenues are deposited into the appropriate funds.
In Jenks, school board policy requires that all rental fees go into the general fund and that renters be charged for a minimum of four hours' use, including $20 per hour for the custodian or other district employee that is required to monitor events.
The Jenks Public Schools board policy manual even includes a detailed schedule of rental fees for all facilities, from a soccer building at $25 per hour to nighttime use of the stadium at $170 per hour and even the performing arts center at $1,000 for an eight-hour performance.
Original Print Headline: Missing money irks sports groups
Andrea Eger 918-581-8470
Stephanie Spring: Ex-TPS Athletic Director has been charged with depositing into a personal account money for the rental of facilities.