Barb Willett says the question arose often during her four years on the School Improvement Council at Hilton Head Island High School: Why does so much money from a nonprofit mentoring group at the school seem to be spent promoting Seahawks football?
Willett started wondering the same thing herself during a 2008 game after a message over the loud speaker at Hilton Head Island Community Stadium.
The public address announcer welcomed a group of elementary school students, recognizable by T-shirts passed out in their hallway earlier that day by football players. Emblazoned across the front, Willett said, was the "Bleed the Blue" football slogan popularized by head coach Tim Singleton, who also is president and CEO of the Strive to Excel mentoring program.
"This isn't right," thought Willett, who sought donations and helped organize events for Strive because her son participated in the program. "This isn't what the money I raised should be going toward."
Others have expressed similar sentiments, and documents show Singleton has shifted money between Strive and the football team, sometimes in apparent violation of the school's fundraising and accounting rules.
Records showing Strive's recent years' expenditures have been requested by The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette, but the organization has not supplied them.
Many of Singleton's defenders concede attention to accounting and administrative detail is not his strong suit. However, they say he sincerely wants to help the community's young people and that if he mishandled money, he did so to serve them, not to enrich himself.
"He can be abrupt; he can be cranky. ... Yet, if you need him, he's got your back all day long," said Obie Schramm, former president of the school's sports booster club. All three of her college-aged children participated in Strive, and her fourth child signed up a few weeks ago, undaunted by recent news of the organization's governance problems. "(Singleton) always had my kids' backs, and I will always be grateful to him for that."
However, Willett said she thought contributions she solicited would go toward scholarships, college trips and SAT-preparation courses; T-shirts, football letter jackets and other gifts Singleton has bestowed were not part of the bargain.
"I would have never asked businesses that I did (for money), because I felt later like a fraud, that I wasn't representing what I was asking for truthfully," Willett said.
STRIVE PAID FOR FOOTBALL JACKETS
The Strive to Excel website contains a page about Singleton's football camp and another listing the Seahawks' 2011 football schedule. No other Hilton Head High sports teams are so prominently featured.
Those links are emblematic of how Singleton blurs distinctions between the programs and intermingles their finances, some say.
For instance, Singleton often purchased lettermen's jackets for football seniors, a gift participants in other sports do not typically receive. The jackets usually are awarded during the school's year-end sports banquet.
"The letter jacket thing was a bone of contention," said Board of Education member Bill Evans, a former Hilton Head High principal, school district administrator and ex-officio member of Strive's governing board. " ... Kids see that stuff. They go, 'How come those guys all get letter jackets and we don't?' "
Photocopies of two Strive to Excel checks -- mailed anonymously to the Packet and Gazette -- suggest Strive money was used to pay for at least some of the jackets.
Both checks are drawn from a First Federal account and made out to a local sporting goods store for $2,500 each. The first is dated Jan. 31, 2006, bears Singleton's name in the signature field and says "Seahawk Football Jackets" in the memo field. The second is dated June 16, 2007, and says "Lettermens Jackets" in the memo; it is not signed.
It's not clear how many jackets were bought or how much each cost. A bookkeeper for the sporting goods store said she did not think the company still has records from that time.
Websites for several letterman jacket vendors and manufacturers indicate they typically sell for $100 to $175.
OFFICIALS: PROCUREMENT, FUNDRAISING RULES FLOUTED
Records and interviews with Strive donors indicate money flows in the opposite direction, too -- from the athletics department's football fund to Strive.
In August, Strive offered five sponsorship packages for its annual Hawkfest, a community festival Singleton started in 2005. It raises money for the nonprofit group and Hilton Head High sports teams.
Each package included items Strive doesn't have the right to sell, according to athletics director Mark Karen and former booster club president Mike Manesiotis.
For instance, a Strive flyer distributed to potential sponsors described a $5,000 "touchdown" package, which includes a sign on the Community Stadium press box. Singleton confirmed the sign was part of this year's package in a phone interview Sept. 23, before declining further comment and abruptly ending the interview.
Karen said the football team -- not Strive -- has exclusive rights to advertising on the stadium's press box and that all payment for that purpose must be to Hilton Head High.
Principal Amanda O'Nan said she does not believe that policy exists in written form but that it has been made clear to all of the school's coaches.
A new sign for Land Rover Hilton Head appeared on the press box this season. The company's marketing director, Jill Jauch, said she purchased it from Strive in August as part of a Hawkfest sponsorship package that also included an advertisement in the team's football program, "Seahawk Power."
The dealership's payment -- two checks of an undisclosed amount -- was made directly to Strive, Jauch said.
School records indicate $554 was paid from the football team's account to make the metal Land Rover sign. But Karen said late last week that the school has not received any money for the advertisement and that even if it is eventually reimbursed by Strive, the procedure did not follow school protocol.
Jauch said she knew the money was going to Strive but added that Strive marketed Hawkfest as an event that benefits the school and football team.
"It seemed one in the same," Jauch said. "I felt like it was all interrelated, but I knew my money was going to Strive because that's who I wrote the check to. I didn't write a check to the school."
All five Hawkfest sponsorship packages also include advertisements in "Seahawk Power." Karen said money for advertisements in any teams' programs must also go directly to the high school, with 90 percent of the funds later deposited into that team's account and 10 percent sent into a general athletics fund that pays for referees and other expenses.
The school's bookkeeper has received numerous checks for advertisements in Seahawk Power, according to Karen, who was named athletics director this past summer. He said he has not yet matched them with the advertisements in the program to ensure all are accounted for, but he plans to do so.
A LONG-RUNNING BATTLE
Karen is not the first administrator frustrated by Singleton's disregard for procurement rules, according to Evans. For instance, he said about 100 pairs of cleats once were delivered to the school, and then-athletics director Greg Elliott had no idea who ordered them or how they would be paid for.
Elliott, now the head basketball coach at Summerville High School, confirmed Evans' account of the cleats' delivery and his characterization of the confusion Singleton's purchasing habits often created. He also agreed Singleton's purchase of letterman jackets for football players was divisive.
Elliott declined further comment.
Evans said that when he was district ombudsman and supervisor of its athletics programs, he frequently mediated disputes between Singleton and the school's athletics booster club, particularly when the issue was signage in Community Stadium.
Unlike advertisements on the press box -- proceeds from which are to go to the football team -- the All-Sports Booster Club is to share in the proceeds of banners hung along the fencing inside the stadium. According to a policy adopted in 2008, sponsors must pay $600 to the club, which designs, orders and hangs the banners. The booster club keeps $300, using a portion to cover its costs, then gives the other $300 back to the school to be deposited in the account of the team that solicited the sponsorship.
But when Singleton sold banners, he often remitted only $300 to the booster club, according to Manesiotis, its former president.
"The booster club would be made whole, but we never knew what happened to the other money," Manesiotis said. "... We don't know if he sold it for full price, if he included it as part of package deal with the (football) program, if the money made it to the football account. It might have, but I don't know. All I know is that I would get $300, not $600."
Manesiotis estimated that about 70 percent of the banners inside Community Stadium were sold by Singleton or the football team.
Two of this year's Hawkfest sponsorship packages included banners inside the stadium, according to a flyer describing the packages.
O'Nan said she saw the flyer for the first time last week, agrees the packages are problematic and has handled the situation "internally."
Manesiotis said Singleton also organized fundraisers without prior approval from the school or booster club. At a football game two years ago, Manesiotis watched former Hilton Head High athletics director Lew Kent ask food vendors to leave the stadium because they had not been authorized to sell anything.
The vendors said Singleton gave them permission to sell boiled peanuts, but Manesiotis said all sales at football games must go through the booster club and be approved by the athletics director.
Kent declined comment for this story.
DISTRICT DISTANCES ITSELF FROM STRIVE
For the past several years, the Beaufort County School District has provided Singleton a regular paycheck for his Strive work and allowed him to participate in the district's health care plan and other benefits. Strive then reimburses the district for the salary and the employer's contribution to Singleton's benefits, so that there is no cost to the district except for the labor associated with processing the paycheck.
However, about three years ago, when Strive and the school operated without a formal agreement, the nonprofit group was 18 months behind on its payments to the district, according to Phyllis White, the district's chief operational services officer.
Superintendent Valerie Truesdale asked her to intervene, White said, and she met with Singleton to arrange payments on the past-due amount and create a formal agreement with the nonprofit organization.
Since then, Strive occasionally has been late with a payment or had to be prompted by White to make one, but Strive has not been seriously in arrears, she said.
Singleton has managed Strive's finances with little day-to-day oversight.
A state law -- the S.C. Nonprofit Corporation Act -- requires nonprofit groups to hold an annual meeting of its membership, and that meeting is to include a report from the president and chief financial officer. However, until reorganizing earlier this month, Strive's board had not held a formal meeting since April 2008. The organization has no on-staff financial officer. Former Board of Education member and tax attorney Bob Arundell has prepared Strive's annual tax returns.
While Strive's board failed to meet, Singleton reimbursed himself for expenses charged to his personal credit card, according to Arundell, who also is a volunteer football coach at Hilton Head High. Strive's tax forms indicate that during the 2009-10 fiscal year, Singleton increased his compensation by more than $40,000, in apparent violation of the organization's bylaws, which require board approval for any change to the president's pay package.
After Strive's most recent financial and governance problems came to light, the district asked Strive to vacate free office space it has occupied in Hilton Head High for several years.
Strive must leave by Dec. 31, by which time the district also will stop providing a payroll check and benefits to Singleton and require Strive to provide its own liability insurance. The district will still allow Strive space for meetings, but it must demonstrate its fiscal soundness with regular reports, according to terms of a new agreement.
It's not clear if those reports will include more than Strive's federal form 990s, already publicly available.
Meanwhile, board secretary Tom Gardo has pledged that the group will seek an examination and opinion from an independent auditor as it tries to get its finances in order. However, Gardo said only the audit's findings, not the underlying documentation, would likely be made public.
Arundell said he does not think Strive's books have been audited before. The organization incorporated in 2001.
"The situation as it exists today is profoundly disappointing," Schramm said. "I'm sad beyond words. I'm sad for Tim. I'm sad for the program. I'm sad for the football team."
Schramm said she, too, locked horns with Singleton over fundraising matters when she was booster club president, but their friendship and her respect for him endured.
"When your friend is the belle of the ball, it's easy to be friends with them," Schramm said. "When they hit a tough time, you'd like to say, 'Singleton, Singleton, Singleton. Nope, never heard of him.' I can't do that.
"This is hard, painful, ugly stuff, but now I need to have his back."
Reporter Rachel Heaton contributed to this report.
Follow sports reporter Sam McDowell at twitter.com/MatchPointBft.
Follow editor Jeff Kidd at twitter.com/InsidePages.
- Strive to Excel website
- Hilton Head High turns itself in for possible violations in football, Aug. 18, 2011
- Seahawks football coach Singleton suspended, Aug. 23, 2011
- Hilton Head High transfer still might be ineligible, Aug. 25, 2011
- Salary for nonprofit head comes under scrutiny, Aug. 29, 2011
- Probation, $500 fine for Seahawks, SC High School League rules, Aug. 30, 2011
- Singleton says pay did not increase, Aug. 31, 2011
- Singleton, Arundell mum on Strive questions, Sept. 1, 2011
- School board, donors still trying to size up Strive, Sept. 2, 2011
- Sources: Hilton Head High's Singleton played transfers over AD's orders, Sept. 9, 2011
- District promises scrutiny of Strive as nonprofit group reorganizes, Sept. 12, 2011
- Emails raise questions about HHH's report to High School League, Sept. 13, 2011
- SC secretary of state to 'look into' Strive to Excel, Sept. 18, 2011
- Superintendent promises 'end' to financial arrangement with Strive, Sept. 19, 2011
- Superintendent announces Strive to Excel changes, Sept. 20, 2011
- Another free office space for Strive floated, batted down, Sept. 22, 2011