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Palm Beach Post (Florida)
The treasurer of Bak Middle School of the Arts stole $66,000 from the school over three years, a police investigation has concluded, removing the money bit by bit from more than 100 deposits placed in the school's safe between 2012 and 2015.
But even though the money — much of it from fundraisers intended to support student activities and sports teams — was never recovered, she will not face any criminal charges.
School district detectives determined that Cathleen Spring, 52, committed grand theft, petty theft and an organized scheme to defraud, going undetected for years as she stole cash intended for student activities, according to a police affidavit.
But state prosecutors declined this past year to take the case, saying that the police findings amounted to "circumstantial evidence."
The police investigation, revealed in a report released this past week by the School Board's inspector general, sheds light on a case that shook the campus of the prestigious arts-themed middle school two years ago and left it short of money for student projects, sports and special events.
Spring — who resigned during the investigation — was the only school employee responsible for removing cash from the safe and depositing it in the school's bank accounts. In 108 cases, police say money vanished from deposits between the time that Spring removed them and when they were taken to the bank.
"Spring was the last individual to be in possession of these deposits later discovered missing," school district police Detective Kevin McCoy wrote in an arrest report. "Defendant Spring never reported individual deposits missing, or documented on the drop safe log these deposits were missing."
Spring, who with her husband owns a $456,000 home in West Palm Beach's Stonewall Estates community, denied taking the money but told police she could not explain how it disappeared. She was removed from the school as police began their investigation in March 2015 and resigned five months later.
Spring was hired by the school district in 2012 and was earning $25,600 annually in her role as the school's treasurer when the financial problems came to light, records indicate. She and her husband, Christopher Spring, own and operate George's Paint and Hardware in West Palm Beach, according to state records.
Reached this week, she declined to comment. Her attorney also declined to discuss the case, saying he hadn't had a chance to review the investigation.
Not only did tens of thousands of dollars disappear after being in Spring's custody, police say they found repeated evidence of efforts to cover up the vanished cash.
In March 2015, investigators say they found shredded financial logs in a waste basket in Spring's office. When they pieced together the documents, they turned out to be records of deposits that had vanished. Confronted, police say Spring denied shredding the documents and said other employees had access to her office.
In another case, investigators said they opened a second safe in Spring's office — one where she stored deposit bags awaiting pick-up by a bank courier — and found that deposits that Spring had recently removed from the school's main safe were not there and could not be accounted for.
Detectives also said that in another instance Spring removed a deposit from the safe containing cash and checks but deposited only the checks. As the cash vanished, a portion of the report indicating that there had been cash in the deposit was blotted out with white correction fluid, police discovered.
When the school athletic director complained that an internal sports account had less money in it than it should, police say Spring transferred money into that account from other school accounts without authorization.
Spring admitted to police that she forged the principal's signature on a $7,433 check to cover sports uniform purchases, ones that were supposed to be paid out of the mysteriously low sports account. Police theorized the forgery could have been intended "to conceal the theft of (the) funds."
Just before a trip to New York in 2015, police say Spring used her school-issued credit card to order two pairs of Ugg boots worth $320 total, then covered the payment by pulling money from the school's after-care program.
When police found one of the pairs of boots in her office, records show she told them that was the only pair she had bought and claimed she was planning to return them. She changed her story, police say, when they confronted her with evidence showing she had also bought a second pair.
In 2014, police say Spring used her school district credit card to pay for $90 in airline fees to JetBlue, then charged the expense to the school's visual arts department.
On a bank statement for the card, a detective noticed that correction fluid had been used to cover up a mention of her son's name on a line item for one of the JetBlue expenses. Her son did not attend the school.
At the same time that money was disappearing from the safe, police found that Spring was making large cash deposits into her family's bank account. In less than 3 1/2 years, nearly $22,000 in cash was deposited into the family's credit union account in her name, according to bank records cited in the police report.
But detectives could not prove whether the cash she deposited in her accounts was money that disappeared from the school safe.
All told, the collected evidence was not enough to pass muster with the state attorney's public corruption unit, which dismissed it as circumstantial and said that detectives failed to prove conclusively that Spring had taken the money herself.
"In essence, the state would have to prove a negative, that no one else but Cathleen Spring could have stolen the money and that the 108 deposit envelopes actually contained the amounts recorded on them with Spring being the only one to count all the funds," Assistant State Attorney Timothy Beckwith wrote in September.
"With the passage of time, and the lack of any direct evidence to support this conclusion," he wrote, "the state cannot meet its burden."
For the inability to prosecute the case, Beckwith blamed the school itself, saying that its financial controls were too lax.
"The procedures in place for the safekeeping of the monies deposited and the lack of any video surveillance or other safeguards for the initial depositing of collected monies also make it impossible to prove beyond a reasonable doubt who actually took the money," he wrote.
The case came to police's attention in early 2015 via the school's athletic director, who noticed discrepancies in the amount of money being deposited into the athletic program's bank accounts.
In its investigation released this past week, the inspector general faulted school leaders for failing to maintain adequate procedures.
"It is the school administration's responsibility to train and monitor staff on the required controls to maintain and ensure the integrity of cash collections," the office concluded.
In an interview, Principal Sally Rozanski criticized the state attorney's office's conclusion's as full of "inaccuracies" and defended the school's procedures for handling cash deposits.
"There are procedures in place," she said. "She (Spring) didn't follow the procedures."
She added that since the incident the school has taken additional measures to prevent future thefts and had recently received a clean audit.
But she acknowledged that the scale of the thefts had been "devastating" for the school and that she and her staff were saddened to learn that prosecutors would not press charges against Spring.
"I am disappointed," she said, "and I am sure my staff is as well."
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