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Bulking up with booster clubs

How to harness power of volunteer groups that bring vital funds to athletics
Booster club members attend a session presented by the National Booster Club Training Council.
Booster club members attend a session presented by the National Booster Club Training Council.

Sports teams in a growing number of school districts can only return to their fields, gymnasiums, rinks and pools each September with the support of parent-run booster clubs.

As budgets tighten, these clubs, which have provided high school athletes with everything from uniforms to scoreboards to travel money for competitions or games, are expanding into elementary and middle schools.

“We’re done with the days where our budgets are going to grow—we’re happy when they stay the same and don’t shrink,” says Chris Juntti, principal of Stratford High School, part of Spring Branch ISD in Houston. “Our district has a good focus on funding our athletic programs to a point where they can be competitive. Our boosters take our programs to the next level that school districts are just not able to do in this day and age.”

Stratford High School alumni include Indianapolis Colts star quarterback Andrew Luck and the Houston Texans’ Terrance Lloyd, an undrafted free-agent signee. The school’s four booster clubs—which cover athletics, band, choir and theater—raise about $100,000 per year each to fund scholarships, projects such as a $10,000 tennis court upgrade, and trips to music competitions.

In October, the athletic booster club will begin a $10,000 field beautification project, which will include planting trees along the back of the football field and installing a drip irrigation system.

The average high school has seven booster clubs, according to Steve Beden, executive director of the National Booster Club Training Council, which supports club members and administrators. An average booster club raises about $17,000 per year, but the organizations have raised as much as $1 million at some high schools, Beden adds.

“When a school administrator understands the tremendous value boosters can bring in support and finances, and then understands the dynamics of how to work with them in a positive way, it’s a huge asset,” Beden says.

Taking on more expenses

About 10 years ago, booster clubs were found primarily in high schools, with parent-teacher organizations raising most of the funds for K8. But budget cuts in recent years have led more elementary and middle school administrators to ask parents to organize booster clubs, which can raise funds more expansively than PTAs and PTOs, Beden says.

Last May, Northbridge Public Schools in Whitinsville, Mass., failed to pass a $3 million tax increase to maintain school services. The district then was forced to cut $1.1 million from its budget for the 2014-15 school year, and eliminated all foreign language classes and athletics at the middle school.

Best practices for administrators

Steve Beden, executive director of the National Booster Club Training Council, provides tips for administrators on maintaining successful relationships with booster clubs:

  • A school administrator or athletic director should be on the board of directors. They should not be an officer, but should guide the club on policies and procedures.
  • A coach, school program director or their spouse should not be an officer or director due to conflicts of interest.
  • Before the school year starts, administrators and club officials should discuss goals for the year, what support the club can provide, and how to get more parents involved.
  • Administrators should offer the clubs some training on risk liability and financial management. The National Booster Club Training Council or Parent Booster USA can provide training materials and advice
  • Administrators should have transition plans to replace parents who leave when kids graduate. For example, parents of sophomores or juniors should be encouraged to become officers so they can mentor new parents coming in.

The high school booster club stepped in to help: Middle school parents volunteered with the club to save the soccer, field hockey and football programs for this fall. They hosted two fundraisers in August, and raised $15,000. “We looked at all the cuts and where we could make the biggest impact,” says booster club volunteer Nikki Roadman. “The support from small businesses in town has been amazing.”

High school booster clubs carry more of the burden for districts as well. At Tigard High School, part of the Tigard-Tualatin School District in the northwest corner of Oregon, the football booster club raises $40,000 per year, which covers equipment, team meals, uniform cleaning, coaches’ office supplies and training camp expenses, says booster club member Bob Smith.

“Our program tries to take care of things that the district can not. It is not like it used to be when you showed up to play and all you needed was supplied by the school,” Smith says. “Equipment to keep our players safer at times is not something the district can handle when we are looking at solving the issue of overcrowded classrooms.”

Fairfax County Public Schools in northeastern Virginia has 25 high schools, each with an athletic booster club. The clubs each raise between $75,000 and $250,000 annually, says district spokesperson John Torre. “As budget cuts have become deeper, booster clubs have picked up more of the expenses,” Torre says. For example, the district has passed the cost of maintaining irrigation systems on to the booster clubs.

Organizing an effective club

There are no federal rules and only a few state laws that regulate booster clubs, Beden says. The exception is for the estimated 12 percent of clubs that are registered as federal tax-exempt nonprofit organizations. Most boosters are eligible for nonprofit status, but many parent volunteers believe the complicated IRS form is too burdensome, says Sandra Pfau Englund, executive director of Parent Booster USA, a national organization that gives legal guidance to nonprofit school support organizations.

Booster clubs are independent organizations, but most parent volunteers involved also have no formal training in the legalese of fundraising, Pfau Englund says. Administrators need to provide these clubs with clear policies, procedures and guidance on what the particular school or club needs.

Most booster clubs have an executive committee made up of a president and one or more vice presidents, a secretary and a treasurer. There is also a liaison for each sport or activity. Most clubs also have a school administrator, coach or program director as a non-voting board member and advisor. These advisors attend all meetings to inform members about program needs, district policies, vendors and access to school facilities.

Stratford High School advises all booster clubs to have a school employee, who has no vested interest, as a non-voting member. “From time to time, it’s important that we remind folks that the idea of a booster club is to support students,” Principal Juntti says. “Sometimes we have to gently nudge them that it’s not telling the football coach what plays to call or the band director what songs to play. The structure we have with an administrator being involved is that they are there to refocus them if they lose focus.”

Administrators regulate who uses school property, and can endorse the booster and accept its donations, Pfau Englund says. But schools cannot disband booster clubs and take their money. “It’s important for administrators to understand the separation, and to provide a strong guiding hand, but not to overstep,” Pfau Englund says.

Ensuring accountability

Embezzlement is a risk when dealing with cash and untrained volunteers. At least three dozen booster club members have faced criminal convictions for embezzlement since 2011, according to a June NBC News investigation. The thefts ranged from $2,200 to $439,000.

After numerous cases of embezzlement and misuse of funds, Ohio in 2013 began requiring booster clubs with more than $25,000 in assets to file reports with the state. In one case that year, an athletic booster club treasurer from Springboro Community City Schools in Ohio admitted to stealing at least $439,000 from the club over eight years.

An accounting system that ensures proper handling of funds is essential, says Beden of the National Booster Club Training Council. Each month, the booster treasurer should provide administrators with a financial statement of the costs and the money raised.

“We don’t want to restrict fundraising ability, but we want to have checks and balances in place,” Beden says. “When there is bad appropriation of funds, it puts everyone in a bad situation. The administrator needs to understand what is going on financially.”

To ensure accountability, cash donated at a fundraiser should be counted by at least two people and deposited immediately, says Pfau Englund of Parent Booster USA. Checks should be made out to the booster club and deposited to the booster club account. “It’s always a good idea to provide receipts, and thank you notes for all donations, including whether the donor received anything of value in return for the donation,” Pfau Englund says.

Bank statements should be regularly reviewed by a club member who doesn’t have check-signing authority, and booster clubs should adopt annual budgets and yearly reviews, she adds.

Ensuring equity

Economic disparities between schools in the same district impact booster club fundraising, as parents from wealthier schools tend to organize and donate to booster clubs more often than do parents from poorer schools.

Portland Public Schools in Oregon requires that one-third of any contribution exceeding $10,000 be put into an equity fund for use at schools in lower-income areas of the district. Montgomery County Public Schools, the largest district in Maryland, does not accept funds for classrooms, new gymnasiums or other capital projects that are considered the responsibility of the district, county or state. If a donation for a project such as a playground upgrade is more than $50,000, the Board of Education must approve the plan.

District officials also must consider whether the improvement would exacerbate inequality among schools. “Recently, the conversation has been ongoing about inequities,” says Board of Education Vice President Patricia O’Neill. “You want parents involved and people want to give where they live, but we need to provide opportunities to help other schools.”

Of the 126 privately-funded school improvement projects in Montgomery County over the last three years, 22 have cost between $10,000 and $1.3 million, and almost all of them happened in more affluent communities with fewer minority students, according to a 2013 Washington Post analysis. For example, the Damascus High School athletic booster club raised $110,000 for a video scoreboard in 2013, while nine miles away, Watkins Mill High School was unable to raise the $14,000 needed for stadium enhancements.

The district has held three community meetings and is requesting input online about preventing inequality. One possibility is pairing a school in a higher-income area with one in a lower-income area as “sister schools” that share funding. Another option is putting all donations into a single account and then distributing grants to schools that apply.

The members of the Montgomery County Board of Education will review all comments this fall to determine a plan of action.

“You need to work to channel the energy of the parent and business community that want to be engaged in your school, and help them understand what you really need,” O’Neill says. “Everywhere you have successful schools, you generally have a very engaged community.”

Alison DeNisco is news editor.