MAHOMET — Leaders and other volunteers with the Mahomet-Seymour PTO want to move forward in a postive manner after controversy involving former member Ken Keefe, who, separately, also serves on the Mahomet-Seymour school board.
But some of them said they were literally sick to their stomachs when they discovered Aug. 23 that Keefe used his own credit card processing business for the organization’s large annual fundraiser in 2018 without their knowledge.
“It was definitely shocking,” said Ashley Webber, president of the PTO. “I still have respect for Ken in many areas. But you know, I would not have expected this and I’m still having a hard time believing it. But there’s facts and there’s numbers and ... he in his own words has owned up to it.
“It’s out there for us to pick up the pieces,” she added.
The PTO leadership includes Webber; Anna Webb, vice president; Nathan Seymour, treasurer; and Leslie Stoecker, recording secretary.
At issue is the method by which online donations for the 2018 Dawg Walk were processed. Direct monetary donations are handled separately. Top PTO leaders said the 2018 Dawg Walk website had been the same for about five years, with contributions made online processed through PayPal.
In a statement on his public Facebook page announcing his resignation from the PTO, Keefe said he failed to communicate that instead of PayPal, online transactions for the 2018 Dawg Walk were routed through his company, Fund For Us. Regarding his firm’s website, he wrote:
“I published on the front page that my payment structure would be 5.9% + 30 cents for each transaction. That is a 3% platform fee (what would go to Fund For Us) and a 2.9% + 30 cents fee that would go to the credit card processor, Stripe. For comparison, Kickstarter and GoFundMe has a 5% platform fee.
“... I wasn’t looking to get rich quick, but I wanted to have enough to reinvest and continue to improve the Fund For Us platform.
“As the Dawg Walk 2018 planning began, I made my critical mistake. At PTO board meetings, I mentioned my new company, I talked about the work I was doing on the website, I asked for input on changes I should implement to handle new things we were doing in 2018, and I thought that I explained that this new for-profit small business was going to charge some overhead to cover its costs and reinvest in the platform I was building. For example, I wanted to subscribe to an email handling service that worked around problems with lost mail and spam filters, but it cost money. However, I failed to communicate to the board that the Dawg Walk website had changed from a hobby project run on PTO’s web server to a for-profit business that I had started.”
PTO leaders agree that it was Keefe’s duty to handle the group’s website and social media.
“The communication role that he was in is dealing with our website — M-S PTO — as well as our Facebook,” Webber said. “So when he’s referring to the website with Dawg Walk ... we’re all on the same page. It’s been like this way for five years. It’s the same thing we’re talking about.”
But they disagree whether Fund For Us was discussed at PTO meetings.
“There was no mention in any of our meeting minutes about this other website,” Webber said. “And so that’s where the disconnect is.
“On the Fund For Us website before it was taken down, there was no name of him anywhere on that website,” she added.
During the Aug. 19 Mahomet-Seymour school board meeting, two visitors brought up the PTO reimbursing Keefe for items he purchased for use in 2018’s Dawg Walk using his personal credit cards. They alleged “unethical” behavior by Keefe on that matter, and one asked that he resign from the school board, a role separate from his PTO work.
The day after that meeting, Keefe emailed other PTO members and offered to resign. But those PTO leaders said he didn’t point out that he owned Fund For Us, and at that point they said they didn’t yet know that the 2018 Dawg Walk utilized the firm.
“All (the email from Keefe) states is ‘I realize we have a potential conflict of interest risk with the use of Fund For Us website for the Dawg Walk. If I wasn’t on the board the PTO could vote to use Fund For Us and there would be no conflict of interest concerns,’” Webber said. “But he doesn’t go on to say, ‘I own this website.’ He just says there is a potential conflict of interest. To me, as a person, I think of that as, like, a relative, a friend — somebody that you know may work there or have a tie to there. I don’t think ‘you own it.’ That’s just not where my brain goes.”
Seymour said, “We all assumed when he was working on the website thing it still went to PayPal, through our Dawg Walk website.”
Webber said the PTO leaders didn’t know that Fund For Us charged a higher fee to process transactions than PayPal did.
“There was no mention of a 5.9% fee instead of the 2.9% that it’s always been. There was never that disclosure ahead of time because I’m pretty sure all of us would have vetoed that just because it’s double the fee,” Webber said. “We don’t want to pay more money when we’re trying to raise more money. That kind of defeats the purpose.”
Webb said, “We do have checks and balances in place, however, it had been done the same way for so many years that we just assumed it was still being done the same way because it was the same person, the same system, the same everything, that there was no reason to expect that it had changed in any way.”
Seymour said that in discussing monetary transactions via the web with Keefe, the latter spoke in general pronouns, such as saying “they” were going to send deposits.
“It was my first year as treasurer, and Ken was the previous treasurer, and I was trying to learn, figure out how to do it. So I was relying on him quite a bit to show me the ropes,” Seymour said. “I had never neard of Fund For Us, and when we were talking about these deposits that were coming through ... I was clueless. I didn’t understand.”
The PTO leaders give Keefe credit for his online work on behalf of the PTO.
“Let’s be clear: It’s great software; it works great. There were no issues as long as it was being run through PayPal. The issue became when it was changed without our knowledge as a board,” Webber said.
Keefe served as secretary or communication executive for the PTO in 2014-15 and 2015-16, then as treasurer for the 2016-17 and 2017-18 school years, and back to secretary for 2018-19. Webber noted that the group’s bylaws state that a person can hold a position for two years only before having to move to another role with the PTO and that is why Keefe switched after two years in the same post.
In his Facebook statement, Keefe goes on to say that he didn’t know that PTO board members did not know that Fund For Us was his for-profit company until the weekend of Aug. 23-25.
“As you can imagine, I was upset to learn that not one of them knew that we had switched from using Paypal to a company that I owned. This is absolutely, 100 percent my fault. I should have been more clear. I should have asked the board to vote on using Fund For Us. I should have brought the PTO board a written contract. Unfortunately, I did none of those things. I own this failure to communicate.”
PTO leaders agree with that last statement.
“There was not communication. So it’s hard to misunderstand something that was not communicated to you. There was no communication regarding this,” Webber said. “How did we miscommunicate when we never heard of this company?”
Most of them would not comment on whether they believe the situation is anything other than a communication debacle.
“I want to hope that he believes that it was a miscommunication because I don’t want to believe the opposite,” Seymour said. “Because I know that I didn’t know (about the switch to use Fund For Us). I have to believe that he believes that.”
There are rules that govern non-profits and the handling of funds they earn, noted Troy Lozar, criminal division chief deputy for the Champaign County state’s attorney’s office. The Illinois Attorney General’s office might become involved in such a situation, he added, but he declined to give a legal opinion on the issue involving Keefe.
“I would suspect that this is something that needs to be looked into,” Lozar, who lives in Mahomet, told The Citizen on Wednesday. “I’m glad that there are folks that are looking into this.”
Keefe takes blame for the situation with the PTO.
“I want to be 100% clear that this whole miscommunication was my fault,” he wrote in his Facebook statement. “Please don’t take anything I’ve written here as my attempt to say that the PTO board should have known. That is not at all what I am saying. I should have communicated better.”
PTO leaders are discussing how to replace the online fundraising mechanism that Keefe had handled for the 2018 Dawg Walk. They planned to meet Tuesday (Aug. 27) to hammer out details. They said the online route to donate to the Dawg Walk definitely helped increase funds raised through the effort and will continue.
Changes are coming to guard against any issue similar to this in the future of the M-S PTO, its leaders also said this week.
“It’s in the works. It’s very fresh for all of us,” Webber said. “We are in constant communication.”
Processes for the Dawg Walk this year are shared more widely among the PTO leadership now.
“Everybody’s eyes are on it,” Webber said.
Focusing on its mission
The Mahomet-Seymour PTO is like most other parent-teacher organizations.
“It’s a very simple concept,” said group president Webber. “We’re here to raise money with the Dawg Walk and then turn around and give it back to the schools for extra activities.
“It’s a wide range of things that we want to do,” she added. “We want to help in every way possible.”
Group treasurer Seymour said, “Get kids excited about school as well.”
The Mahomet-Seymour group focuses its attention on students in grades kindergarten through fifth, so its members work directly with Middletown Prairie and Lincoln Trail elementary schools. Its money is routed three ways: One-third goes directly to the schools; one-third is for teacher stipends; and the final third is offered as grants, Seymour explained. For the latter, started last year, Seymour said teachers propose grants and the public votes on the top projects to fund.
The PTO also supports events such as a book fair, reading programs, PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports), Heritage and National Differences Study (HANDS) Around the World and more.
“I think it’s a huge importance with any school district,” Webber said of the role the PTO has to play. “You’ve got the school administration and the teachers, and then you’ve got the parents who want to help, so this is like the best way to bring everybody’s ideas.”
She and other leaders invite input from teachers, school staffers, parents and the public at large.
M-S PTO vice president Webb chimed in, “We want everyone’s opinion.”
2019 Dawg Walk
The PTO planned to have Dawg Walk packets to Mahomet-Seymour students today (Aug. 30), Webber said. The youth then have a deadline of Sept. 11 to raise funds. On Sept. 26, Middletown Prairie will have its Dawg Walk celebration, while Lincoln Trail’s will be Sept. 27. Students will get popsicles and walk around the school with their parents, among other activities, and the “sliming” of principals at the schools will be back this year.
With 1,550 students in the elementary schools as of this week, the PTO ordered just over 1,800 Dawg Walk T-shirts for youngsters plus teachers, staff and volunteers. The topic of prizes for fundraising as part of the effort has generated some debate in Mahomet, so this year, Webber said, three options were put forth to PTO leaders. The middle-of-the-road option won the most votes.
“So the kids are still going to feel like they’re getting something, but it’s not going to be like breaking the bank on the back side,” she said.
Other perks for top fundraisers, and some for any students who participate, include riding in the Homecoming parade, spending time with the high school cheerleaders and football team, and local business-sponsored prizes.
Webb said, “As a teacher, I feel like there’s so many things that you can use in your classrooms that will benefit students and parents and families and the community that just isn’t in the budget for our school.
“And so as our fundraiser rolls out, we’re hoping that we can provide some of those things that will make a difference — that the schools just can’t do, not because they don’t want to but just because the funds aren’t there,” she said.
In the wake of the controversy involving Keefe and Fund For Us, PTO leaders have a simple message for those not involved in the group:
“Join us,” Webb said.
Webber added, “We’ve been asking for help.”
Volunteers are always welcome, she said.
“I think we’re still going to have a great year,” Webber said. “We’re still going to get a lot of money. We’re still going to hopefully be able to do all of the things that we’ve done in the past. We’re kind of (a) positive mentality board, so we’re going to keep thinking positively.”
Webb chimed in, saying, “We’re going to do everything we can to make it positive.”