The Positivity Project, part three: Who’s behind it?

Detractors cry sham, creators say nothing questionable

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Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of articles arising from a controversial program introduced earlier this year in the Harnett County School System — The Positivity Project.

Parents who oppose a controversial character education program being taught in Harnett County schools say the organization behind it is nothing more than a cash cow for the founders.

In contrast, the organization’s leaders say they’re just getting started and those allegations are unfounded. They say they do it entirely for the cause.

For those unfamiliar with the project, it uses 24 defined characteristics to educate students in four Harnett County schools to be better team members, build better character and to try and make them better citizens.

Critics, including members of the 1 Voice — a parental organization — and local businesswoman Orbie Bevil, say it’s a program instilling the basic principles of socialism into the students.

After complaints by parents, the program was halted at Lillington-Shawtown Elementary. It continues to be taught at South Harnett and Boone Trail Elementary schools and Western Harnett and Coats-Erwin Middle schools.

The Positivity Project is operated by two men who serve as president and vice president and overseen by a small board of directors.

According to a letter offered by the project, the IRS granted the company nonprofit status as a 501 (C) (3) in 2016. The company filed its first income tax return for that same year.

The company listed on the IRS-990, which is the form used by nonprofits for tax filing purposes, contributions, gifts, grants and similar amounts received as $78,721. They also included program service revenues as $96,687 for a total revenue of $176,512.

According to documents provided to The Daily Record by The Positivity Project, there are two full-time employees, Mike Erwin and Jeff Bryan. Mr. Erwin is listed on IRS documents as the company’s president and Mr. Bryan is titled a vice president. Both men list the average hours they spend working at the company each week as 50.

The other employees are listed as board members and they include Jake Wood, Kerri Walsh-Jennings, Elisabeth Hasselbeck, Will Reynolds, Seth Bodnar, Kate Ryan Kuhlman, Tova Walsh, Lou Nemec, Emily Nunez Cavness and Kelly Boone. With the exception of Mr. Wood, all board members provide one hour of service to the company. Mr. Wood is credited with two hours of service each week, according to the IRS documents.

The salaries listed for Mr. Bryan and Mr. Erwin increased significantly between when the company filed their first return for 2016 and when they filed their second return a year later.

In 2016, Mr. Erwin reported a salary of $45,000 and Mr. Bryan slightly more at $48,000. And no member of the board received any compensation, according to the return.

In one year’s time the salaries of both men had increased dramatically. Mr. Erwin reported an annual salary of $68,500 while Mr. Bryan’s pay went to $90,000. That’s an increase of 34 percent in Mr. Erwin’s pay and 47 percent in Mr. Bryan’s salary.

“The accusations about us being in this for the money is wildly off-base,” Mr. Erwin told The Daily Record. “We started this nonprofit organization with nothing in 2016 and barely made it by that year.”

He said as for the fact there’s no other paid employees, Mr. Erwin said it’s simply because the company is not large enough to afford to hire at the present time. He said they plan to expand as the company grows.

“Nonprofits are allowed to pay employees and the only reason Jeff and I are the only two employees paid so far is because we haven’t generated enough revenue yet to hire other people,” Mr. Erwin told The Daily Record. “That will change this fall as we continue to grow and reach more schools and children across America with our emphasis on positive psychology’s 24 character strengths.”

Mrs. Bevil points out what she deems are questionable practices by the company as far as the financial aspects are concerned. She says the company doesn’t follow the “Golden Rule” for nonprofits which she says is salaries only taking up about 10 percent of all revenues.

“The golden rule for a nonprofit is that no more than 10 percent should be going to your payroll,” Mrs. Bevil said in a video criticizing the group. “If you’re a nonprofit then you’re looking to pay people a reasonable amount for their time. Then the rest of it should be going back into what you are providing or whatever group you are providing the service for.”

Mrs. Bevil said her research into the organization has led her to believe the revenue generated from the Positivity Project comes from sales of such items as T-shirts, posters and other related items involved in teaching the subject matter. It also includes the cost to the school systems who have adopted the program, just over 400 nationwide, which includes training as well as grants from other sources.

“So this nonprofit organization only paid two people, the owners, the overwhelming majority of that money,” Mrs. Bevil said. “So out of $257,000 (in 2017), $196,000 was pocketed by these two men. And the remaining is probably what it cost them to get a professional website and the marketing team that is designing their T-shirts.”

On the Positivity Project website, posproject.org, profiles of both Mr. Erwin and Mr. Bryan say they are graduates of the United States Military Academy at West Point and that both have served in combat duties in the Middle East.

According to Mr. Bryan, Mr. Erwin is the founder of veterans service organization Team Red, White and Blue, co-author of “Lead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude” with Raymond Kethledge who was on the short list for President Trump’s last Supreme Court nomination, served at Ft. Bragg in the U.S. Army, and is a North Carolina resident.

“In fact, I am still serving as a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserves and am assigned to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point where I teach leadership and psychology every summer,” Mr. Erwin said. “Her (Mrs. Orbie’s) video is misleading to say the very least.”

In our next and final installment, we will examine claims by critics the project itself is not needed in Harnett County and the reasons from both sides supporting their claims.

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