For months, parents with students enrolled in the Vikings Cheer & Tip Toes Dance Studio in Guernsey, Wyoming, questioned why they weren’t being billed for their children’s dance, cheer and tumbling classes.
Those questions came to a head this past fall when a back-and-forth dispute came to a head between the studio’s instructors and Tri-City Parks and Recreation (TCPR) staff about thousands of dollars in missing fundraising money for the dance program and other activity fees.
Instructors said there were issues with billing, the overall handling of finances, contract negotiations, how much Parks and Rec was supposed to deduct from their paychecks and personal Venmo banking accounts being used instead of business accounts.
Other questions were raised with the TCPR board and the way it added to its membership and provided meeting minutes.
The chairman of the board told Cowboy State Daily that although some unintended mistakes were made, the situation has been mostly overblown, as proven by a Platte County Sheriff’s Office investigation.
The investigation into allegations of embezzlement from the department found no criminal wrongdoing.
“Yes, there were mistakes made, but they were not criminal in nature,” said Danielle Noggle, chairman of the Tri-City Parks and Recreation District board.
Even so, Jessica Schreiner, the dance team coach, and Heather Walker, who coaches cheer and tumbling, have both resigned and the city’s dance and cheer program has been disbanded.
Now, the instructors are opening their own private studio called Vikings Cheer and Tip Toes Dance and are taking many of their former students with them.
Schriener said opening their own dance studio was never what they wanted. She got involved in teaching dance as a way to help her community.
By the end of her three years running the program, Schriener had grown it from six to 50 participants, an impressive feat for Guernsey, a small eastern Wyoming town with only about 10-15 kids per grade level.
“I reached a huge amount of students within that school district,” she said.
The controversy over what happened to the Parks and Rec money also drew the attention of Wyoming State Ombudsman Charlotte Martinez, who was asked to mediate a related dispute for the release of public records and meeting minutes from the TCPR Board. Letters were also sent to Secretary of State Chuck Gray, who parent Melissa Howe said spent hours with her on the phone learning about the situation.
Ultimately, what Howe said she’s learned is that to fully hold government officials accountable with public records in Wyoming, one must take them to court. The failure of a governmental agency to provide public records in Wyoming or follow its own laws can only be addressed through the filing of a private lawsuit in civil court, carrying a maximum $750 penalty.
“There’s nobody to hold them responsible for their actions,” Howe said.
In a town of fewer than 1,200 residents, reputation goes a long way.
Noggle believes she puts her reputation on the line with every action she makes on the volunteer Parks and Rec board, which is an unpaid volunteer position.
She says many in her town are fixated on the mistakes that were made rather than acknowledging she and her board members are making active steps to improve their practices. She wonders if some locals will ever be satisfied.
“I would never ever claim to be perfect, but in the eyes of these parents who want someone to blame, I’m becoming a poster child for that, which I’m OK with because it’s going to better our board,” she said. “In the long run, we’ll be a better board for it and a better district for it.”
Where’d The Money Go?
Platte County Sheriff’s Deputy Cody Keller performed the embezzlement investigation, interviewing multiple members of Parks and Rec leadership, its board and the dance instructors. This investigation was completed and closed last month with no wrongdoing found, according to an incident report provided to Cowboy State Daily in response to a public records request.
Keller noted how three different dollar amounts from a "puppy/gun raffle" were reported as the final amount raised by Parks and Rec. The sums reported ranged from $3,883 to $5,526.
Walker said the money from the raffle was never used for cheer equipment and she was never given with an answer about where the money ended up. She also said there were unmarked envelopes with cash inside them that were not documented as raffle sales.
Schriener and Walker also said there were unresolved discrepancies in their pay. Efforts to resolve ongoing pay disputes between Parks and Rec and the coaches through a memorandum of understanding were unsuccessful.
Parks and Rec staff told Keller they at times used personal Venmo accounts instead of business accounts for managing the dance and cheer program’s money.
Through his investigation, Keller was able to match up the funds that were paid into Venmo with bank and card statements, seeing that the money was moved from Venmo to either the same bank account or a Mastercard debit card linked to the Parks and Rec bank account. He also found matching deposits and receipts connected to the bank account, and receipts for raffle prizes and their winners.
Keller noted that any cash handled by either Parks and Rec staff or dance instructors won’t be traceable if receipts were never created connecting to the money. He said any other concerns involving personal items, instructor pay or back pay, while not criminal, need to be addressed in civil court.
“I do not believe any embezzlement took place,” he wrote in his report.
The Blame Game
Schreiner said Parks and Rec staff blamed her and Walker for parents not being billed, and she claims TCPR board improperly discussed ongoing personnel disputes involving her and Walker during public meetings.
When the instructors asked Parks and Rec how much money was raised from their fundraisers, Schreiner said they were given different totals on three occasions.
Noggle told Cowboy State Daily her board erred by allowing children to receive classes for many months after their last bill was paid. Due to a change of bookkeeper and other related issues, she said the situation quickly spiraled out of control.
Tri-City Administrator Lori Ibarra was in charge of the money.
Howe said although she doesn’t believe Ibarra stole any money, she does believe the administrator mismanaged it, adding that, “I do have a problem with someone who can’t ask for help.”
Ibarra said the determination of the investigation “speaks for itself.”
“I’m glad they did the investigation so everything could be put to rest,” Ibarra said. “We’re just ready to move on.”
Although some parents weren’t billed, Noggle said that never meant they didn’t have to pay at all. Noggle sympathizes with parents’ concerns about billing, but because the situation involves children, she believes some are blowing the allegations of embezzlement out of proportion or telling outright lies.
“The facts are the facts,” she said.
Noggle also expressed frustration that some parents haven’t commended the department for offering $60,000 in dance and cheer scholarships over a period of two years. She said Tri-City ended up taking a large financial loss on the program that the department initially funded upfront.
“I don’t think that gets the credit it deserves,” she said.
Schreiner and Howe believe Parks and Rec and its board have not been transparent.
When Howe attempted to view some of the TCPR board’s meeting minutes, she said she was told although they were compiled, she would still be denied immediate access to view them. This is what eventually led her to contact the state ombudsman.
When she finally received the minutes, Howe said there were inaccuracies and important details left out from meetings she attended.
School Board Too
Over the course of a few months this past fall, Howe said she and other parents also learned that the Parks and Recreation Board had allegedly been illegally appointing members to their own board. This responsibility is supposed to be done by the local school board.
Gary Anderson, chairman of the Platte County School District 2 board, declined to comment to Cowboy State Daily, stating his board has no authority to intervene in the operations of the Parks and Rec board.
Howe said this type of argument doesn’t hold weight as it would negate the purpose of the school board having a liaison member on the Parks and Rec board.
Howe and others submitted a petition to have two members of the Parks and Rec board removed, but the request was voted down by the school board.
“We want to hold them accountable for the way they treated the coaches, for the way they pushed them out, for the way parents are getting billed now (retroactively) from October,” Howe explained.
Noggle admitted her board failed to follow its own bylaws. She said she is actively pursuing training and scheduling meetings on these matters.
“It’s become a priority,” she said, adding there was a general lack of collaboration and teamwork on the instructors’ part to work through the situation.
“It was too many chiefs in the kitchen and we’re now having to do damage control,” she said.
Howe said many parents are refusing to pay their bills in protest of the way the finances have been handled, in addition to other outstanding issues involving uniforms and shoes.
Schreiner and Howe believe there are far too many conflicts of interest between the Parks and Rec board, school board and local town council, which Schreiner and Howe believe played a significant role in the ongoing disputes.
This is a common scenario in many small Wyoming towns, where getting enough people to serve on public boards can be an achievement in itself.
Noggle said these concerns have no substance and are being used as a matter of convenience.
What The Future Holds
There are still bad feelings about what has transpired in the small southeastern Wyoming community of Guernsey.
After a TCPR board meeting in December, accusations were made that the board didn’t inform the public it had come out of an executive session and was resuming the public portion of its meeting.
Noggle said this is untrue and that videos posted on social media were taken out of context and misrepresented. Although she admits she hasn’t always done the right thing, Noggle said her intentions have always been pure.
Tri-City is planning to get a third audit from an outside agency to make sure its finances are in order, an effort Noggle considers a top priority for repairing the public’s trust in her program.
Meanwhile, Schriener and Walker started teaching at their new studio last week.
“We decided to not take no for an answer and that we are going to provide this opportunity,” Schreiner said.
Noggle said she personally supports their new business and has no intention of having Tri-City compete with them.
“I don’t want to be in competition with a quality program,” she said. “It’s a disservice to the children of the community.”
Leo Wolfson can be reached at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com.