Three weeks ago, Chris Robling, an outspoken parent and former school board candidate in Riverside-Brookfield High School District 208, appeared before the board of the Riverside Brookfield Educational Foundation (RBEF) and asked to see the group’s check register.
His request was met with a notable lack of enthusiasm.
The RBEF is a charitable foundation that raises money to support educational opportunities for students, faculty and staff that the school’s regular budget cannot support. Most of its funding comes from an annual telethon aired on the school’s TV station. It also administers some endowed scholarships.
In his approximately 30-minute appearance before the RBEF board on Aug. 15, Robling pointed out that for the last eight years, the RBEF has filed federal tax returns, IRS Form 990, that identify the RBEF as a 501(c)(4) organization.
Leaders of the RBEF say that the 501(c)(4) designation was a mistake and that the RBEF has always been a 501(c)(3) organization. The difference is significant. Contributions to a 501(c)(3) are tax deductible while contributions to a 501(c)(4) are not. And while 501(c)(3) groups are prohibited from engaging in political activity, 501(c)(4) groups are allowed to engage in political activity to some extent.
David Newman, the former treasurer of the RBEF and a longtime board member who signed the tax returns, acknowledged the mistake and said it was a “scrivener’s error” by the accountant that he did not catch.
The accountant who prepared the returns, Sam Macaluso, told the Landmark that he merely followed the designation on past returns when he began doing the RBEF’s tax returns.
“However the previous accountant did it, we assumed their work was correct,” Macaluso said.
The foundation registered as a 501(c)(3) when it was founded in 1987 and maintains that it has always been a 501(c)(3) despite what its tax returns say. The foundation has a letter from the IRS from May of this year stating that the foundation was recognized as a 501(c)(3) in 1988 and that donors can deduct contributions to the RBEF on their tax returns.
Robling also pointed out that the foundation’s tax returns were incomplete and did not disclose officers, directors or grants as they are supposed to.
“The reporting has been woefully inadequate and bears every indication of trying to obscure rather than illuminate,” Robling told the Landmark.
Robling says that he wants to look at the RBEF check register. He also suggested that if the RBEF board was not comfortable with that, they should let a respected member of the community examine its checkbook.
“If there is no problem they should release the check record,” Robling said. “If there is a problem, they should correct the record with the IRS and on any official filings that need to be corrected.”
But when the RBEF board discussed Robling’s request after he left the meeting, it became apparent that the board is highly unlikely to let Robling look at its checkbook.
Tony Miezio, a relatively new RBEF board member who has taken over from Newman as treasurer, said while the old tax returns were not perfect, he is not inclined to support allowing Robling look at the group’s checkbook.
“If we had to honor every single request of every single person that ever wanted to inspect our books it would be a cataclysmic waste of time, effort, energy and money to allow that process to happen,” Miezio told his fellow board members. “That is what the 990’s are for and, to a greater extent, that is what the annual reports are for.”
Last week Miezio dropped off at RBHS five years of the RBEF’s federal tax returns and six years of financial statements along with a list of financial statements and grant recipients.
Miezio said that if anyone wants to look at the documents they should go to the school and ask to see them.
Robling has viewed the documents and says he is not satisfied.
“No one knows what the complete story is until they actually look at the check register,” Robling said. “It’s impossible to see what’s going on until you see the financial transactions in their totality.
“What they’re doing now is both incomplete and insufficient.”
The Landmark filed a Freedom of Information Act request and obtained the documents Miezio gave the school. They do not include a check register, but do include a list of expenses and grant recipients for the past five years.
Grants, mostly less than a $1,000 each, went to RBHS students and faculty usually for trips and off-campus workshops. In the 2012 fiscal year, the foundation gave out $16,760 in grants and recorded $3,075.60 in expenses. In 2012, only three grants reached exceeded $1,000.
One of those was a $3,000 grant to the school to support the school’s efforts to bring a Nobel Prize winner to RBHS. Teacher Jenna Passananti received a $2,000 grant to attend a leadership foundation training session and the Fine Arts Department received a $1,500 grant.
Grants totaling $5,770 were given to students, and $5,990 went to RBHS faculty.
In the 2010 fiscal year the foundation spent $55.60 for a gift card to board member Katrina Koncius in honor of the birth of her first child.
Robling said he did not have a problem with that.
“That’s not what I’m concerned about,” Robling said.
RBEF board members are convinced that Robling is looking for evidence that the foundation made political contributions.
Longtime RBEF president JoAnne Kosey, who writes a weekly column for the Landmark, told the board that in 2006 she was asked if the foundation would make a contribution to the campaign committee supporting the 2006 referendum campaign that sought, successfully as it turned out, to raise taxes to sell bonds for the expansion and renovation of RBHS.
“I remember being asked, I remember being approached and I said no, that is not our mission,” Kosey said. “I wound up going back to the board and told them that I’d been approached and told them no.”
Kosey said the board never took a formal vote on the request, but supported her view that the RBEF should not contribute to the referendum committee.
The RBEF board will take up Robling’s request at its Sept. 19 meeting.
But the foundation’s board members seem eager to move on. Many board members feel that Robling’s request is part of a political attack focusing on Kosey and Newman. Miezio said that Robling’s questioning of the RBEF is making it difficult to fill two open board seats.
“By conducting this vendetta, he’s making it almost impossible for us to find new board members,” Miezio said. “His actions right now are making it very difficult … for us to raise money in the community.”
Robing said that he is not the issue.
“I’m not the problem,” Robling said. “Their actions are the problem. They filed false reports. They should have responded that night. I don’t know why we’re waiting for another month to go by.”