This Palm Beach Gardens school used ‘Toys for Tots’ gifts as test prizes 

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Grove Park Elementary spent $14,000 on a 3-hour field trip to a Miami zoo, used school funds to buy Saks Fifth Avenue sandals for an assistant principal, and held donated Christmas toys for use as rewards for students with high test scores, a school board investigation found.

Principal JoAnne Rogers did not violate any policies last year when her Palm Beach Gardens school failed to distribute toys from the Toys for Tots charity the week before Christmas, deciding to instead hand them out later in the year to students who made “academic gains during testing” or other achievements, investigators concluded.

But the move violated the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation’s wish that they be given to needy children as Christmas gifts, the school board’s inspector general concluded.

Principal JoAnne Rogers

“Clearly the program desires for children to receive toys during the Christmas season and unrelated to the child’s ‘academic gains during testing’ or the child’s ‘academic performance achievements,’” Inspector General Lung Chiu wrote.

Rogers told investigators that she was out of town when the toys were delivered to the school and that her assistant principal did not have time to distribute them to the most needy children on campus on the last day of classes before Christmas. She added that the charity did not deliver enough toys for every child at the school.

Instead, Rogers wrote to investigators, the toys were held and “distributed at times during the year for academic recognition.”

She did not tell investigators how many children received toys or how the recipients were selected. She did not respond to a request for comment from The Palm Beach Post.

In an interview Tuesday, Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa defended the school’s decision, saying that Toys for Tots dropped off the toys unannounced on Dec. 22, the last school day before Christmas.

“They didn’t know that on the last day before children left they were going to show up with a truck full of toys,” Avossa said. “You can’t stop everything and sort out toys.”

He said that Rogers and her staff “made the right decision and should not have distributed those toys.”

Efforts to reach a local representative for the Toys for Tots program were unsuccessful. On its website, the Toys for Tots’ Palm Beach County campaign said that it delivered toys directly to schools last year in an effort to reach more needy children.

“We will be conducting our campaign the same way for 2017 as we were able to directly impact far more children than we ever could have imagined,” the organization wrote.

Grove Park Elementary, located on Military Trail south of Northlake Boulevard, was an F school when Rogers was assigned to take it over last year. Under Rogers, its grade rose this year to a C. About 90 percent of its 530 students last year qualified for federal lunch subsidies.

Investigators said that Rogers violated school district policies by buying a $185 pair of sandals for Assistant Principal Marzella Mitchell in September, then using $100 in school funds to compensate herself for the purchase.

When questioned by investigators, Rogers initially denied that she had purchased shoes for Mitchell, records show. But investigators discovered a form Rogers had filled out to compensate herself after purchasing the sandals at Saks Fifth Avenue in Palm Beach Gardens.

Rogers later admitted to the purchase, arguing that the gift was an “academic recognition in nature” for Mitchell’s hard work at the school.

The purchase failed to meet school district standards for documenting school expenditures and violated a district rule against purchasing gifts for adults worth more than $100, the investigation concluded.

School district spokeswoman Kathy Burstein defended the purchase in an email Tuesday as permissible under school district rules.

“She bought the shoes with her own money and sought partial reimbursement, as allowed by policy,” Burstein wrote.

Toward the end of the school year, Rogers arranged for the school to spend $14,400 for a school-wide field trip to Zoo Miami, an excursion planned for 536 students and 79 chaperones.

Records show that Rogers spent $9,600 to hire 12 charter buses and an additional $4,837 on admission costs for the May 15 trip.

Students were scheduled to spend 3 hours and 15 minutes at the zoo, including a 30-minute lunch break. An additional three hours were scheduled to be spent in transit.

The zoo, located southwest of Miami, is 99 miles from Grove Park’s campus. The Palm Beach Zoo, by comparison, is 11 miles from the campus.

Burstein said that field trips to the Miami destination are common in public schools throughout the county and that the Miami zoo has attractions that can’t be found in the smaller Palm Beach Zoo.

“The two zoos provide entirely different experiences and have different animals — elephants, lions, giraffes, etc., that you can’t see at the Palm Beach Zoo,” Burstein wrote. “Why should students at a (low-income) school be denied this opportunity?”

Chiu concluded that the trip “was appropriately documented and approved by required district officials.”

As a result of his findings, Chiu recommended that Rogers receive online training regarding the proper use of school funds.

 

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