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Story Last modified at 3:10 p.m. on Friday, April 22, 2011

Chugiak High thefts under investigation
Two office workers among four district employees under scrutiny

BY MELISSA DeVAUGHN
Alaska Star

Two Chugiak High office workers are among four Anchorage School District employees being investigated for stealing money from the school system.

While none of the cases appear to be connected, school district superintendent Carol Comeau said that if it had not been for the initial report of suspected theft by one employee at Chugiak High, a more thorough investigation likely would not have been initiated district-wide.

Former Chugiak High office worker Gayle White is facing felony charges of second-degree theft and falsifying business records, according to court documents. A second Chugiak High clerical employee who worked in a different part of the building has not yet been charged, but the investigation is still under way, said district spokeswoman Heather Sawyer. One worker at West High and another at O'Malley Elementary also are being investigated, she added.

Comeau said the events began to unfold in February, when a coworker raised suspicions about White's involvement in the theft of cash transactions for various school activities and fees. Principal Rick Volk on Feb. 10 contacted police, who immediately began an investigation. The case was handed over to the Anchorage Police Department's financial crimes unit, which is working with the district's chief financial officer Chad Stiteler.

Charges were filed against White on March 18, according to court records. Her attorney could not immediately be reached on Friday. A message left on White's cell phone also was not immediately returned.

The case triggered a wider investigation by the district.

"When that happened, we said, 'We better start looking at other schools to see if there are any other patterns that have changed,' " Comeau said. "That is what has prompted us to see what happened at West."

Stiteler said there is an ongoing investigation at other schools in the district but declined to say which ones those were.

The incident at O'Malley, Comeau said, came about at almost the same time as those at Chugiak and West highs.

"About 20 or so parents started calling the principal saying, 'I don't understand this. My kids owe more lunch money on their card,' " Comeau said.

All four employees have been fired from their jobs, Sawyer said.

"We suspect there will be charges brought on each of the cases," she added.

Rick Volk, principal at Chugiak High, said he is frustrated that the alleged thefts came under his watch but has been heartened by the rest of the staff's willingness to step in and help when needed.

"I'm very disappointed, it's very frustrating," he said Friday. "I take things personal."

Still, he said, it has not changed day-to-day operations at the school. As of Friday, he had received just one e-mail from a parent and no angry phone calls.

Volk said the missing money was noticed only after a student came in for a refund for a class and there was no record of that money being collected.

"They had the receipt but the district had no record that they paid," he said.

That's what raised the first concerns, ultimately leading to an in-house investigation, which revealed missing receipts and cash for a number of students, according to court documents.

Comeau said as the investigation continues - not only at Chugiak High, West and O'Malley, but among every school in the district - she hopes to get an accurate count of just how much money has disappeared.

"It's an unknown number," she said. "It's in the thousands, and (police) say it could raise farther."

Comeau said the district's investigation should be a "wakeup" call to any employee who would consider stealing. In 37 years with the school district, she said she's never seen a theft case of this magnitude.

"This is on a scale that I've never heard of before," she said. "We absolutely expect our employees to be honest."

This article published in The Alaska Star on Friday, April 22, 2011.