Some parents fear end of bingo fundraisers after reminder of state law

08/02/2014 3:39 PM

08/03/2014 8:22 AM

Parents at some Wichita schools fear they may have to cancel their annual bingo night fundraisers – a long-held, often lucrative tradition – after a recent reminder from district administrators that state law forbids pay-to-play bingo.

“There’s a little bit of hope that we might still be able to hold one if it’s on a donation basis,” said Sherry Ibrahim, president of the parent-teacher organization at Peterson Elementary School.

The group raised more than $5,000 at a bingo night earlier this year – money that went toward copy machines, paper, field trips and classroom supplies for the west Wichita elementary school.

“It’s a big school tradition and a substantial fundraiser,” Ibrahim said. “Everybody looks forward to it every year because the kids have a lot of fun there, and so do their parents.”

In May, district officials sent a note to principals aimed at clarifying bingo regulations and asked them to forward the information to parent-teacher groups.

An event “where people pay to get in, pay to play, and prizes are awarded only to winners” is not allowed, the directive said. Events where admission and bingo cards are free – or those that request but don’t require a donation – are allowable, it said.

“During the school year, questions come up about it,” said district spokeswoman Susan Arensman. “We just wanted to clarify it for schools: Please don’t have bingo nights if you’re going to say, ‘Hey, you have to pay $5 to get this bingo card.’ You can’t do that.”

Bingo nights are popular fundraisers at many schools. Normally, parents and other volunteers solicit prizes from local businesses and sell bingo cards for $1 to $5 each. If a player makes a bingo, he wins a prize. Some schools hold silent auctions for additional prizes.

Such games of chance, however, are illegal, according to law enforcement officials.

Arensman said the note to principals was prompted by queries and “overall confusion” about bingo fundraisers, not a specific incident or event.

“Some people were wanting to know what the rules were and what they can and cannot do,” she said.

Ibrahim, the Peterson parent, said she was discouraged by the news at first.

“It sort of made us feel like they were just trying everything they could to stop us from being able to support the schools,” she said.

After further research, though, she said she hopes the school can continue the event with a few adjustments. Most notably, her group could ask for voluntary contributions rather than charge outright for bingo cards.

“We would prefer to adjust it slightly over canceling it,” she said. Requesting donations “probably wouldn’t be a big deal” because family members who attend the annual event want to support the school, she said.

Patsy Congrove, administrator of charitable gaming for the Kansas Department of Revenue, said groups such as PTOs or nonprofit foundations have another option as well: Apply for a bingo license.

Kansas law permits nonprofit religious, educational, charitable, fraternal and veterans organizations to apply for a bingo license. The licenses cost $25 and are good for a year.

As part of the application, a group must prove it has existed for at least 18 months, show tax-exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service, and provide names and contact information for its officers. The group also must file a monthly report with the Department of Revenue and establish a separate trust account for funds raised through bingo.

Fewer than 20 school-related organizations in Kansas – including parent-teacher, after-prom and Project Graduation groups – currently hold bingo licenses, she said.

“When PTOs and PTAs convene for the school year, they’re always looking for ways to raise money for their school, and so bingo frequently comes up,” Congrove said.

“What many people don’t realize is that if you’re going to charge to play bingo, you have to have a bingo license, and those are available only to nonprofits.”

Ibrahim, the Peterson Elementary parent, said she doubts her school will apply for a license because of the time, cost and paperwork involved in establishing tax-exempt status. Beyond that, there’s the 57-page handbook outlining the state’s rules and regulations for bingo licensees.

“Then you have to ask, ‘For a once-a-year event, is it worth it?’ ” she said.

Arensman said the recent reminder of bingo laws wasn’t intended to discourage school groups from holding fundraisers or family fun nights, but to make sure their events follow the law.

“There are probably some principals who may say, ‘Let’s just not mess with it. It’s confusing, so let’s do something else,’ ” she said. “Some may make some changes to make sure they’re not charging (to participate). And some don’t do bingo nights, so it’s not an issue.”

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