Monday, November 26, 2007

Susan Semonick On Schools - District Foundation Annual Report – A Comedy of Errors or a Tragedy?

My night reading was a colourful 16-page brochure, which the Langley School District Foundation put out as their Annual Report. I thought it would help put me to sleep. It did not. What it did was leave me with a lot of questions and a headache. The booklet read like a cheap whodunit that disoriented you with constant back and forth of changing time. Unlike a good mystery that skilfully takes you to a satisfactory 'aha’ ending, searching for clues or facts in the report was like being led through a showy maze and getting lost while stumbling along the way over more than a baker’s dozen of spelling and grammatical errors littered throughout. At the end, you end up with no resolution and only red eyes. One would think that an organization associated with an educational group such as a school district would pay more attention to the fundamentals of writing.

Annual Reports often have two functions. There is the legal requirement to provide financial reporting and a summary of the past year’s activities. The glossy, colourful versions are also an organization’s calling card, its public face or foot forward if you will. This year’s annual report for the Langley School District Foundation does a disservice to the numerous volunteers and donors who have chosen to give of their time and resources. At the very least, I would expect that the names of the generous donors be correct. This is a sign of respect and appreciation. The corporate donors would not complain but they do take notice. The Foundation has several people in business as directors so they should understand that the corporate name is extremely important and that a lot of thought, time and resources have been put into creating a corporate image, which includes the company name. It is disturbing to note how many of these have been misspelled in some way (15 at last count, before my eyes got tired) including that of the Foundation’s largest benefactor, McDonald’s (with an apostrophe please), and even Campbell Burton & McMullan (with the ampersand, and evidently with or without the comma) which just happens to be the Chair of the Langley Board of Education’s firm. I am not sure if ‘Paddlewheelers’ that have apparently also supported the Foundation is a riverboat cruise company, a pub, or a liquor store but it would be nice to give acknowledgment to where it is appropriately due and not elsewhere. The School District spent so much money on behalf of the Foundation on a colour brochure that one would have expected that they would have invested in a spell-checker and an expert proofreader. This is not being fussy; it is about respect and professionalism in conducting business. There are many other charities to donate to; the competition is fierce. Why would you not want to cultivate good relationships and present yourself and your donors in the best way possible? Do you not learn this in Basic Business 101?

I compared the information presented in the brochure with the audited financial statements and had more questions than answers. If you told me that the annual report was a piece of fiction, I might not argue with you right now. The numbers do not seem to add up.

Let us start with the obvious. As I said, the report seems to be purposefully vague about time. First, the Foundation was officially established in November 2001 and yet the report refers to 2005-06 as its first year. It may be the first year for the establishment of certain events but that is not how the annual report reads and I find this, once again, disrespectful to the directors and many others who worked hard to establish the Foundation in 2001 and continued to develop it for many years. After all, the Foundation reported assets of over $692,000 at the end of the 2004-2005 fiscal year.

Second, while the annual report is supposed to report activities of the past year, it often reports out past activities and success to provide context and history. This is fine if you are clear and exact about what happened when and how much was raised in each time period. However, this is not the case when you read the Foundation’s report. Stories of successes, those of the Foundation AS WELL AS those of other organizations, and endeavours not a result of direct Foundation activities, are sprinkled liberally throughout the report and make it look like the Foundation has achieved more than it really has. One is never quite sure whether the amounts reported are for this fiscal year, a past year, a one-time revenue or a cumulative accounting of revenue and grants. I am developing a begrudging awe of the Foundation’s ability to cast a wide net, attach itself to numerous other activities, and present a kaleidoscope of its padded successes.

Third, the numbers that are provided about the two events that the Foundation does actually conduct do not match the figures contained in its audited financial statements. It is interesting that the usual information, balance sheet, income statement, etc. are not included in the annual report as is customary. The reader is, instead, directed to a website to find this information. The annual report states that the wine and cheese gala raised $74,000 and golf tournament raised $55,000. However, if you look at the financial statements, the net revenue for the wine and cheese is $12,590 and the net revenue for the golf tournament is $16,660. Even if you add in the other donations recorded for the past year of $18,860, this only totals $48,110 not the stated $129,000 for the two events. The numbers do not even match the reported revenue for last year, so it would be difficult to suggest that figures refer to different fiscal years.

The only reason the Foundation can state that it provided schools with $60,000 in grants is because of the transfer of $125,000 of school district funds to Foundation coffers. There is no doubt that SOME of the programs that are supported by donations, as well as redirected school district funds are worthwhile. The Langley School District, like many others, is fortunate in having generous corporate as well as individual donors. However, some would question why a few of these programs like the Reading Recovery Conference for Teachers could or should not be funded by district or other outside funds. As I have said repeatedly, there is an issue of lack of accountability regarding these monies, and decisions that should be made by trustees and not Foundation directors.

Apparently 70% of it’s funds raised is “earmarked” for particular school programs and incentives and 30% goes towards an endowment fund. Again, the numbers do not add up. It seems that a good portion of the transferred $125,000 is being “held” in this endowment fund for future use. What about the needs of current students?

As far as I have researched, it does not appear that the school district records the wages of the Foundation’s executive director as a donation, nor does it appear that the Foundation records it as a gift in kind or pay for it and include it as an expense. Why would they? Then it would show that there is actually a net loss and that the cost of running the Foundation is greater than the donations that it receives, if you do not include the huge transfer of funds from the school district, which I do not.

Why do donations to PACs need to be funnelled through the Foundation when the school district is able to issue charitable receipts directly? Again, is it to paint a pretty picture for the Foundation? See page 11 of the report. Much of what the Foundation did was simply provide charitable receipts. There was no direct fundraising by the Foundation; the schools and/or PACs did the work. Nonetheless, it looks good on the income statement.

Why are the two trustees and the secretary-treasurer of the school district reported as “at-arm’s length” when they in my opinion appear not to be? Until this past year, the Foundation did not meet the criteria for being a public foundation. They do now, and that is good but why did it take so long to comply?

As I said, there are too many questions and inconsistencies. The Foundation’s Annual Report is a pretty presentation, full of inaccuracies and errors, that confuses more than it explains.

A parent has asked for copy of the Foundation’s charity return that it would have submitted to the Canada Revenue Agency. Perhaps I will be able to find out why my math does not seem to be the same as that of the Foundation.

This is an opinion on the Foundation’s Annual Report that was produced using school district funds that could have been better used for direct student services.
I would like to make it clear that I am not against the Foundation. What I am opposed to is the school district’s contribution of grant and endowment monies, office space, web space, an employee and office supplies without accounting for all of it. In times when we are closing schools and disrupting people’s lives all in the name of finance, the school district should ensure that students’ basic needs are met before addressing the fluff.

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