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Story Last modified at 11:28 p.m. on Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Police investigate CHS thefts
Two office workers under scrutiny; one charged with two felony counts

BY MELISSA DeVAUGHN
Alaska Star

Stephanie Cook got a surprising bill from Chugiak High last year.

She owed about $10 for her daughter's meals.

"I thought it was very strange," said Cook on Monday, "because my daughter never ate in the cafeteria."

Now Cook wonders if that mysterious bill is connected in any way to last week's revelation that two Chugiak High office workers are among four Anchorage School District employees being investigated for stealing money from the school.

Over the past two months, Chugiak High school administrators have been sorting through what appears to be a string of thefts, mostly of cash transactions for such things as class fees or activities.

Former Chugiak High office worker Gayle White faces felony charges of second-degree theft and falsifying business records, according to court documents. She was charged March 18. 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.

CHUGIAK'S WOES

While none of the cases appears to be connected, school district superintendent Carol Comeau said that if it had not been for the initial suspicions at Chugiak High, a more thorough investigation likely would not have been initiated districtwide.

It all started in February, Comeau said, when a coworker raised suspicions about White's involvement in the theft of cash transactions for various school activities and fees.

According to court documents filed in Anchorage Superior Court, once Chugiak principal Rick Volk learned of the possible thefts, he conducted an initial review of the school's receipt filing system and found 42 receipts for cash transactions in the attendance office that were never turned into the Anchorage School District accounting office. The documents do not specify what each transaction was for.

Volk contacted police on Feb. 10.

"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."

Chad Stiteler, the district's chief financial officer, said there is an ongoing investigation with APD's financial crimes unit at other schools in the district but declined to say which ones.

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

"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.

At Chugiak High, Volk spent the better part of February scrutinizing the cash transactions that filtered past White's desk. Charging documents reveal that on repeated occasions, cash collected during the day did not match receipts, or receipts were missing altogether. On Feb. 23, for instance, Volk said in a statement to police that an $85 cash payment by an employee was made while White was at lunch, but that evening, the receipt, and the cash, were missing.

The next day, he discovered five more missing receipts and cash, totaling $185. In all, Volk found $715 in cash missing, although police detective Anthony Pate, in the document, estimated that it could be closer to $5,000 per year since the 2009-2010 year, when police estimate the thefts began.

Since the investigations began, all four employees have been fired from their jobs, Sawyer said. As of Tuesday, no new charges had been filed yet.

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

Volk said he is frustrated that the alleged thefts at Chugiak 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. "I take things personal."

Still, he said, White's arrest has not changed day-to-day operations at the school. He has not been inundated by calls or angry e-mails, but is cooperating with parents who may have concerns.

For Cook, she said, her daughter's mysterious lunchtime charges may have nothing to do with the thefts, but they speak to a larger problem of money mismanagement in the schools.

"I had this fee to pay, and it was only for about $10," she said. "My daughter said she didn't have any charges, and I thought it was weird, it was out of character for her, but I paid it."

The next year, though, it happened again, Cook said, only this time her daughter was not even in school during lunch. As a half-time student, she attended school only after the lunch hour was over.

"I thought, 'This makes no sense because she's not even there at the lunch hour,' " Cook said. "I went in and talked to them, and eventually they took the charge off. Even if it's not related to this, I still think it's another example of how things aren't working. It's just clear to me there is a lot of potential for abuse out of the system. There are obviously issues with money and charges and how that is all handled."

Comeau said she hopes the investigation can eventually ascertain exactly how much money the district has lost.

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

She also said she hopes it is a chance to re-educate employees on money-handling practices. Stiteler said the school district is in the process of creating a more streamlined money-handling system, much of which is automated. That will limit the opportunity for abuse as well.

Comeau called the district's investigation 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."

Reach Melissa DeVaughn at melissa.devaughn@alaskastar.com.



This article published in The Alaska Star on Thursday, April 28, 2011.