Beaufort News

District promises scrutiny of Strive as nonprofit group reorganizes

The Beaufort County School District plans to examine participants' satisfaction with a nonprofit mentoring program based at Hilton Head Island High School and seeks assurances the organization's accounting is in order after recent revelations its president has operated with little financial oversight.

Strive to Excel won't be the only organization under the microscope, though, superintendent Valerie Truesdale said Friday. The district plans similar examinations of other mentoring programs operating in its schools.

And as the district increases its scrutiny of Strive -- which is run by Hilton Head High football coach Tim Singleton -- one member of the nonprofit group's board said he expects an independent audit of the organization's finances, though he would not commit to full disclosure of its results.

"Not knowing what all the numbers are, I would probably prefer to take a clean slate and move forward on an audited basis because the past appears to be very messy as far as accurate records," said Tom Gardo, Singleton's longtime friend and, until recently, Strive's lone board member.

Gardo now has company on the Strive board -- six new members were brought aboard last week. They include new chairman Ike Evans -- the former vice chairman, president and chief operating officer of Union Pacific Railroad.

The board met Friday, with Singleton in attendance, to discuss governance and finances, Gardo said. Subsequent meetings will be held the third Friday of each month and will be public, he said.

Gardo also expects that the full board or a few members will meet with Truesdale or another district representative before the scheduled October meeting.

Oversight wanes; compensation rises

Gardo said Strive once had a robust board, but it disintegrated in recent years. Organization records indicate that until Friday, it had not held a formal meeting since April 2008.

The program remained strong, however, with Singleton overseeing daily operations and acting as Strive's chief fund-raiser, Gardo has said.

Singleton also had access to the organization's money, which allowed him to write his own compensation checks and reimburse himself for Strive-related charges to his personal credit card without approval from a board member or financial officer.

In the 2009-10 school year, Singleton increased the compensation he receives from Strive by more than $40,000, according to federal tax records, to an amount equal to about 32 percent of the organization's gross revenues. The increase came without approval from Strive's governing board, as required by the organization's bylaws.

Gardo has said he thinks Singleton deserves the compensation -- more than $138,000, according to Strive's most recent tax filing -- but he said the organization will ask an independent auditor for an opinion of Strive's finances. He said that opinion -- but not necessarily the audit underlying it -- likely would be made public.

Gardo added the board will cooperate fully with the district's inquiries. Truesdale has not asked to see the organization's books, he said, but expects she will want assurances Strive's new board will put adequate financial controls in place.

Truesdale said the recent scrutiny of Strive has prompted the district to examine the organization and all other independent mentoring programs within Beaufort County schools. The district is speaking with current and past participants to get a sense of how well they work. The superintendent said she expects the examination -- which is being conducted by school principals and Sean Alford, the district's instructional services chief -- to wrap up in about two weeks.

To her knowledge, it's the first time a formal review of these programs has taken place. If the district discovers any organization is not meeting its stated mission, it would not likely be allowed back in the schools after this academic year.

"We have been very blunt with Strive," she said. "They have to get their house in order and do a better job with accountability."

A potent lineup

Toward that end, Strive has enlisted Evans and other heavy hitters for its board, Gardo said.

Added Friday were Coleman H. Peterson, former executive vice president of Wal-Mart Stores and former member of the NAACP's executive committee; Robert Trask, president and CEO of Atlantic Community Bank; Kim Tubbs-Herron, a regional general manager for Microsoft; Herbert Ford, a native islander and retired career CIA officer; and local businesswoman Lynne Anderson.

Gardo was elected board secretary, and Trask will be the board's treasurer.

"We recognize Tim Singleton's strengths and weaknesses and wanted to surround him with people who will be most helpful in achieving Strive's mission," Gardo said.

Some of the board members have previous connections to Strive and Singleton.

Evans has been one of Strive's "biggest benefactors" in recent years, Gardo said, declining to say exactly how much the new board chairman has contributed to the group. Several attempts to reach Evans for comment were unsuccessful.

Trask's Atlantic Community Bank is among the local banks that has given Strive credit, Gardo said. It was not immediately clear if Strive still owes the bank money. Attempts Friday to reach Trask for comment were unsuccessful.

Ford is a former Strive mentor, and his daughter participated in the program. He, Tubbs-Herron and Peterson were either recruited by Gardo or Singleton, or they volunteered in part because of their past relationships with the program or Singleton, Gardo said.

Gardo said several other people offered to sit on the board or expressed interest in doing so. He and Evans whittled the list to seven, the minimum required by Strive's bylaws.

"Ike thought it best to start out with a smaller group," Gardo said.

Gardo said he was comfortable letting Singleton -- whom he calls Strive's "heart and soul" -- help recruit new board members because he is most familiar with people who are interested in the organization's mission.

The board agreed at Friday's meeting that Singleton should remain as president and CEO, though it took no formal vote on the matter, according to Gardo.

Among those not invited to Friday's meeting was Barb Willett, who said she has done volunteer work for Strive and who considers herself a critic of Singleton. Willett said she has emailed and called Gardo to volunteer for the board but didn't hear back before the meeting after she submitted background information about herself.

Gardo emailed her a thank-you email and a list of new members late Friday night.

"There wasn't any specific reason (Willett wasn't selected,)" Gardo said earlier Friday. "I've had several people inquire -- we just wanted to keep it at seven. We didn't want a whole lot of controversy at the beginning. We just wanted to get things started."

Strive's bylaws allow for as many as 11 board members, and Gardo said more might be added in the future.

Follow reporter Rachel Heaton at twitter.com/HomeroomBft.

Related content:

Salary for nonprofit head comes under scrutiny; Aug. 29, 2011

Singleton says pay did not increase; Aug. 31, 2011

School board, donors still trying to size up Strive; Sept. 2, 2011

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