The former leaders of two Hilton Head Island High School parent and community groups say they confronted Strive to Excel president Tim Singleton about his handling of money in late 2008 but left the conversation with as many questions as answers.
Discussions with two Beaufort County Board of Education members left them similarly dissatisfied, they said.
Barb Willett was chairwoman and co-chairwoman of the School Improvement Council from 2007 to 2010 and said she also volunteered with Strive for four years. Carole Korner was PTSO president from 2007 to 2009. Both said parents and community members occasionally shared concerns about the financial dealings of Strive and Singleton, who also is the school's football coach.
"We had to listen to parents' complaints, but no one was listening to us," Korner said.
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Korner's daughter, who graduated in 2008, did not belong to Strive, but Willett's son, D.J., participated in the nonprofit mentoring group throughout high school. Willett also volunteered for the group and helped organize a silent auction for Hawkfest, the annual community festival Singleton started in 2005.
When she started hearing rumors in late 2008 that Strive lost money on that year's Hawkfest, she enlisted Korner to help her question Singleton about Strive finances.
"I saw the number of booths that were rented out and the participation we had," Willett said. "I just couldn't believe this thing didn't make money."
According to federal tax records, Strive made $2,308 from Hawkfest in 2008. It made $16,764 in 2007 and lost $13,241 in 2009.
Willett said during the meeting in Singleton's office, he showed her a spreadsheet of Hawkfest expenses and income but told Korner she didn't have a right to see it because she wasn't affiliated with Strive. Willett said she could not decipher the spreadsheet and asked to see further documentation. Singleton promised to get it to her in a few days, but it never arrived, Willett said.
Singleton declined comment.
Willett and Korner said the conversation broadened to include the possibility the group might have to cut back its scholarship awards the following spring. Singleton also told the women he frequently used Strive money to purchase groceries for needy students.
Willett said she wasn't clear whether groceries went to Strive participants or anyone who needed them, but whatever the case, such expenditures are not part of Strive's stated mission, she asserts. Both women also say the school has social workers and the community has charity groups that address such problems, Willett and Korner said.
Singleton justified the purchases by saying Strive's board approves all of his expenditures, "and then he just talked around it," Willett said.
"We both walked away from there feeling very dissatisfied," Korner added.
The two said they had separate meetings with school board Vice Chairman Bob Arundell and Chairman Fred Washington Jr. Arundell, Singleton's longtime friend, has prepared Strive's taxes but told the women he was not a Strive board member and didn't participate in its day-to-day operations.
Arundell, a tax attorney, has said he is too busy to research or discuss details of Strive's finances until after a tax-filing deadline later this month. However, he recalled the meeting with Willett and Korner in an email exchange with The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette.
Willett seemed particularly bothered that "the scholarships to be given out by (Strive) would be smaller than in the past due to funding issues" and feared her son would suffer as a result, Arundell wrote. He added that Willett thought plenty of money for scholarships had been raised.
Arundell said he offered to show the women Strive's federal tax forms, and "I also told them I would share their concerns with Tim, which I did. If they were dissatisfied at the end of their meeting with me, they did not say so."
Washington also acknowledged talking with Willett and Korner but could not recall specifics of their conversation.
He said he likely advised them to take their concerns to the Strive board.
"It's never been an understanding of mine that the school district had any control over the organization, per se," Washington said. Further, the school board is "a policy-making body. When we start micro-managing, we get into uncertain territory, although we certainly have to remain aware of what's going on in our schools and make sure that the appropriate people in the schools are monitoring those programs."
Washington said he cannot recall any other instance of a constituent bringing a complaint about Strive directly to him. He encouraged those who have such concerns about Strive or other programs to take them to the principal, SIC or PTSO.
Korner said she thinks parents and community members have tried to challenge Singleton through those channels, but to little avail.
"The persona of Tim Singleton is that he's untouchable, that people don't want to go up against Tim Singleton," Korner said.
Willett said she believes in Strive's mission and hopes the organization emerges healthy from its current problems. However, she doubts Singleton can effectively lead it.
"My son got a lot of good things out of Strive," Willett said, including a $2,000 scholarship after graduating in 2009, "but none of them were because of Tim Singleton."
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