4 ex-educators charged in theft of field-trip funds

Posted: May 22, 2007

Four former Camden school employees, charged in the first case stemming from a criminal probe into the district, pleaded not guilty yesterday to stealing student field-trip money and submitting phony pay vouchers.

They were arraigned before Superior Court Judge Stephen M. Holden in Camden at a brief hearing and released on their own recognizance. Their attorneys declined comment.

In the most serious allegations, a 10-count indictment returned by a state grand jury in March alleges that Michael Hailey, a former H.B. Wilson Elementary School principal, and his top assistant, Patricia Johnson, stole $14,298 in field-trip money paid by students.

Authorities said the 13 trips were actually paid for by the school district, where many students are from low-income families. The trips occurred during the 2005-06 school year and included visits to the Philadelphia Zoo and Franklin Institute. Parents paid between $5 and $12 per trip.

State Attorney General Stuart Rabner has called the theft allegations "unconscionable" and said he would seek restitution if the defendants are convicted.

The charges are the first stemming from a sweeping criminal investigation launched by state officials last spring into alleged test-rigging and spending practices in the Camden schools.

Hailey and Johnson were also charged with attempting to bilk the district out of $25,000 by submitting phony pay vouchers. The money was never paid.

Also named in that alleged scheme were Juanita Worthy, a former U.S. Wiggins Elementary School principal, and her daughter, Keah Worthy, a former teacher at H.B. Wilson.

The indictment alleges that Johnson, a literacy coach, prepared vouchers seeking payment for 14 employees who attended eight meetings for the School Leadership Councils for both schools. The meetings were never held, authorities said.

District officials discovered a discrepancy in the paperwork before any payments were made and turned the case over to state and county investigators. Nine other staffers were reprimanded, and the contracts of two others were not renewed.

The charges against the defendants include conspiracy, official misconduct, theft by deception, tampering with public records and tampering with witnesses.

Deputy Attorney General Susan Kase told the judge yesterday that she has 12 boxes of evidence to turn over to defense attorneys. Holden scheduled a June 11 status conference.

Hailey, 65, of Delran, Johnson, 57, of Atco, and Juanita Worthy, 59, of Evesham, all veteran educators, retired from the district last June. Keah Worthy, 31, of Evesham, no longer works in the district.

Wilson and Wiggins were sister schools and officials worked closely together, implementing the same curriculum and holding joint staff meetings.

A group of Wilson parents filed a lawsuit seeking to recoup thousands of dollars that they allege parents paid for trips.

The state began investigating Camden schools after The Inquirer raised questions about 2005 state standardized fourth-grade test results at Wilson and Wiggins. The struggling schools posted some of the best scores in the state.

Scores for 2006 plummeted at both schools, and were generally lower across the district after the state sent in monitors. The state Department of Education concluded last summer that the scores had been boosted by "adult interference."

The grand jury is also looking into performance bonuses former Superintendent Annette D. Knox received without the school board's approval or knowledge.

Kase and a spokesman for her office declined comment on the continuing state investigation.

Contact staff writer Melanie Burney at 856-779-3876 or mburney@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Dwight Ott contributed to this article.

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