Monday, September 22, 2014

Board opts not to pursue additional restitution for embezzlement in Vermont

At Monday night’s meeting, the Readsboro School Board decided that nine months of court action was enough, and further restitution claims against former principal Michael Heller would not be pursued. Heller’s certificate to teach in Vermont, however, is something the Windham Southwest Supervisory Union and the school board would like to see revoked, and superintendent Christopher Pratt said that he requested the Agency of Education take action to make sure Heller does not teach in Vermont again. 

Heller pleaded guilty in July to embezzling more than $4,500 in school grant money from two separate grants, meant for expenditures on a school play and school security. Heller embezzled the funds over the course of seven months, using the money for personal expenditures such as hotel stays and trips to Dunkin’ Donuts and PetSmart. 

As part of a plea deal, Heller was ordered to pay back $4,500 in restitution, serve 100 hours of community service, and 18 months of probation. 

At an August school board meeting, members of the community asked the board to consider pursuing a civil suit for reimbursement of other items, including the installation of new security following his departure from the school. At the same meeting, Pratt told the board to ask for an increase in the restitution amount by nearly $300, a request that was ultimately denied.

“It would cost us more money to pursue further action in civil or small claims court than to get what we, or members of the community, want,” said Pratt. “The board voted to move on with the healing process. If we continue to dig this up, people won’t contribute to the healing. It’s not fair to the new principal if we are not able to get past what happened when we also have a lot to celebrate and move on with.”

At the August meeting, members of the community expressed concern over the issue of Heller’s certification remaining intact in the plea deal. 

Pratt called the AoE on Tuesday, and said they were well aware of the situation and had received the complaints against Heller. The AoE could not tell him what the outcome would be due to privacy issues. Pratt said that the matter of certification was most likely left out of the plea deal because it is up to the Agency of Education to take the initiative after a conviction. “It’s my understanding,” said Pratt, “if you hold that certification, there are certain things you’re expected to uphold. You don’t have to make part of a plea, because if they break the code of ethics, you have to have faith in the AOE holding up their end of it, and I assume that’s why it was not part of the guilty plea. That in mind, I’m assuming that at some point the AoE will be acting further in their end of it.”

Pratt said that pursuing the matter was based on the principle that the administration needs to be a trusted force in education. 

“A lot of damage has been done, and we want to build that trust up again,” said Pratt. “But we need to make sure no other school in Vermont has to worry about this happening again. It is our job to make sure we’ve done everything you can to make sure you look out for the rest of the community.”

Board chair Cherrie Giddings echoed Pratt, and said that it would be unconscionable to not do their due diligence in protecting others. 

“I feel it is important that everyone work together to create the best educational facilities and opportunities for all children, not just ours,” said Giddings. “Someone who committed a felony, I don’t think they should be in a leadership position in a school ever again. It was a bad mistake he made, but he shouldn’t work with kids and be trusted.”

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