'Devastating' kura theft: Principal and BOT chairwoman stole $103k

Gisborne Herald,
Publish Date
Thu, 20 Aug 2020, 3:19PM
Te Kura O, Lake Waikaremoana near Wairoa. The pair gradually siphoned money from the already struggling school for nearly two years. Photo / File
Te Kura O, Lake Waikaremoana near Wairoa. The pair gradually siphoned money from the already struggling school for nearly two years. Photo / File

'Devastating' kura theft: Principal and BOT chairwoman stole $103k

Gisborne Herald,
Publish Date
Thu, 20 Aug 2020, 3:19PM

Two women who stole $103,000 from a small rural Hawke's Bay school they managed have been sentenced to home detention and ordered to repay about half the money — the amount they deposited into their bank accounts.

About $55,000 could not be traced so was not factored into court-ordered reparation.

Te Kura O Waikaremoana's former teaching principal Roberta Ann Little, 52, and former board of trustees chairwoman Moana Janice Mary Shuttleworth, 48, were sentenced separately in Gisborne District Court — Little yesterday , Shuttleworth more than 12 months ago.

Both first-time offenders, the pair persisted with their offending for about two years between mid-2015 and 2017.

They hatched a scheme in which they siphoned funding meant for their students by generating fake receipts and invoices for fictitious purchases or costs, then co-signing school cheques for cash and paying them into their personal accounts.

Large sums of cash were also withdrawn from the school's account. More than $45,000 went into Little's bank account, $3414.45 into Shuttleworth's.

No one knows where the rest of the $103,000 went.

It was premeditated, sophisticated offending, the judges who sentenced them said.

Little and Shuttleworth each pleaded guilty to theft in a special relationship and eight fraud charges.

Shuttleworth was sentenced by Judge Stephen Harrop in July last year to five months' home detention and 100 hours' community work.

Little pleaded guilty a week ahead of a jury trial scheduled for last December.

Judge Turitea Bolstad sentenced her yesterday to nine months' home detention.

Judge Bolstad told Little the Crown initially wanted her jailed but had recently reassessed its position and now sought the same starting point as that adopted for Shuttleworth — 2½ years imprisonment. After discounts, home detention would be possible.

Crown prosecutor Fiona Cleary said both women, importantly, were equally culpable for the entire $103,000.

Counsel Adam Simperingham said Little was unable to pay any large sum towards reparation.

She was now unemployed, not in receipt of any benefit and reliant on whānau to financially support her.

He noted some of the school funds that went into her account had effectively been redistributed to the community.

At the time of the offending, Little was under immense pressure from others in the community for funding for various things, Simperingham said.

Judge Bolstad ordered reparation for the full amount deposited — $45,005.76 — and set a weekly reparation rate of $50, but said she hoped Little had the conscience to increase the repayments if she became re-employed.

The judge noted Little only admitted her offending in a limited way, telling a pre-sentence report writer she only pleaded guilty because she had overall responsibility as the school's manager.

The judge rejected Little's claims she relied on others to manage the school's finances while she focused on her teacher and principal roles, and that she did not know money was being deposited into her account.

"You were the principal of the kura. No matter what way you look at it, you were entrusted to manage it to the highest standard and if it was thought you did not have the qualifications and professional nous to do so, you would not have been placed in that role," the judge said.

"I accept you are remorseful for the position you now find yourself in but not necessarily for what you have done," the judge said.

She could not get past Little's audacity to take from her community, which was already struggling.

Little should have been someone tamariki and whānau could look up to and see as a role model, but instead she let everyone down.

"That is something that you will have to carry and it is something that you will have to rectify," the judge said.

Submissions at Shuttleworth's sentencing were earlier suppressed due to Little's pending trial.

Her sentence included credit for agreeing to give evidence against Little.

Counsel Amanda Courtney said Shuttleworth felt under pressure to assist in the offending because she was being provided with accommodation, but her role was limited and she gained little financially.

Judge Harrop noted the fraud would not have been possible without Shuttleworth's assistance.

A victim statement from the Ministry of Education highlighted the devastating impact of the offending on the school and wider community.

Students were deprived of learning opportunities and modern resources.

The Government's Board of Trustees system, which allows community leaders to be the decision-makers for their local schools, was undermined.

Trust was hard to win back after such a gross breach, the Ministry said.

Time and energy the MoE spent unravelling the offending was a diversion from its proper focus — the wellbeing of children.

■ Te Kura O Waikaremoana is a decile 2, years 1 to 8 bilingual school at Tuai, about 50km northwest of Wairoa.
There are about 25 students, mostly Māori, who are taught in two classes — mainstream and Māori immersion.
Little began teaching there in 2010, and became principal in 2014.
Shuttleworth was a parent representative on the board before being elected chairwoman in 2014.

The Education Review Office raised concerns about the school in 2014, as did a financial agency employed by the school in 2016.
A subsequent review of school finances prompted a complaint to police.
The school board was dissolved in September 2017 and a commissioner appointed.
A limited statutory manager is working alongside a new principal, appointed in 2018.