Woman Arrested for Stealing Cash from School That Is Being Shuttered

By Brandon Lausch
Home News Tribune
June 13, 2008

Somerset County authorities Friday announced that the president of St. Joseph School's Home and School Association in North Plainfield had been arrested and charged with theft following an investigation that revealed more than $2,500 in cash donations were stolen from four school-sponsored events, including an entertainment book fundraiser and a theater field trip.

Gretchen Lee, 37, of Malcolm Avenue in North Plainfield, turned herself into authorities Friday morning, police said. She was charged with third-degree theft, processed and released, according to authorities.

St. Joseph School
Photo by MyCentralJersey

The arrest — announced on the last day of classes at St. Joseph School, which is shuttering after 77 years — followed an investigation that began in late March, when Somerset County detectives met with the Diocese of Metuchen's finance director, who alerted authorities that Lee was a suspect in a continuing probe into incidents of theft from the Home and School Association, authorities said.

The organization is comparable to a parent-teacher association.

After attempting to resolve the matter internally, school officials asked a former Home and School Association president and treasurer to audit the association's finances. A January report "highlighted the extent of the missing cash from the various fund-raising events" from October 2007 through February 2008 that were under Lee's control, authorities said in a statement.

Police said during the fundraisers Lee collected cash and check donations before turning over the checks to the association's treasurer. In each instance, she kept cash for her "personal use," police said.

In a breakdown of the events in question, authorities said Lee kept $1,276.82 from a fund-raiser through Innisbrook, a North Carolina company that partners with schools to help them raise money by providing products to sell, such as gift wrapping and gourmet foods.

Authorities said Lee skimmed $863 from a total collection of $1,947 that parents raised to fund a December 2007 field trip to a theater for students in kindergarten through eighth grade, police said. In the same month, the school sponsored an entertainment book fund-raiser. Of the $600 collected in cash and checks, Lee retained $135 in cash for her personal use, authorities said.

Police also cited an instance when Lee received a $1,400 cash advance to purchase $350 gifts for four school referees. Lee kept a quarter of the advance for herself, authorities said.

Attempts to reach Lee and other members of the Home and School Association this afternoon were unsuccessful. A message left for St. Joseph School's principal, Sister Mary Cleary, was not immediately returned.

The school's closing follows Bishop Paul G. Bootkoski's acceptance of a strategic plan for the Diocese of Metuchen's Catholic schools to stem financial losses. The initiative also includes the merger of two elementary schools in New Brunswick, St. Peter the Apostle and St. Mary of Mount Virgin, for the 2008-09 school year and the possibility of opening a second elementary school in Hunterdon County.

The plan states that schools in the Diocese need at least 200 students to remain open. St. Joseph School has 130 pupils in kindergarten through eighth grade.

The school dismissed for the last time at 11 a.m. Friday.


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