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Superintendent: More needs to be done to prevent school thefts

A former Pearl Ridge secretary is suspected in a $69,000 crime

By Rob Shikina

LAST UPDATED: 6:55 a.m. HST, Jan 21, 2011

State Department of Education Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi said yesterday the department needs to redouble its efforts to prevent the recurrence of large thefts at schools.

A former school secretary was arrested Wednesday in connection with the theft of $69,000 while working at Pearl Ridge Elementary School.

Matayoshi said the department already has policies "that when followed provide the appropriate internal controls." But staff shortages combined with new employees make enforcing some of those policies difficult.

"We need to get out there and make sure people know and understand the importance of those controls," she said. "We need to get back out there and do more training and reinforcement — make sure people understand the importance of each individual step in the internal controls process."

The department also has a small auditing unit that looks at school accounts and ensures procedures are being followed, but it is not large enough to cover schools statewide.

The secretary, who was terminated in September for undisclosed reasons, was arrested Wednesday at her home on Noheaiki Place in Waipahu on suspicion of one count of first-degree theft, one count of money laundering and 99 counts of second-degree forgery. She was released pending investigation.

Police said the woman stole money between 2008 to 2010 by writing checks to herself while working for the department.

The department said the woman was hired in July 2000 as an educational assistant at the Pearl Ridge school . She became a clerk typist in 2003 and the school's secretary in June 2007.

Matayoshi said she couldn't comment on the investigation or why the secretary was terminated.

The woman is the second school secretary to be accused of stealing thousands of dollars from an elementary school within a year.

Last month, Janel Echiberi was sentenced to 450 hours of community service and required to write a letter of apology to Lehua Elementary School in Pearl City. While working as a school secretary, she stole more than $13,000 from fundraisers and donations that the school collected for student reward and enrichment programs.

Echiberi, 35, pleaded guilty to forgery and theft for using the school's Sam's Club credit card from 2004 to 2008 to buy tires, a king-size bed, a high-definition TV, a digital camera, clothing, food and alcohol. She also pleaded guilty to theft for putting her name on the school's payroll as a tutor and receiving three months of compensation even though she was not a tutor.

Matayoshi said learning of the thefts is like getting "hit in the stomach."

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