TRENTON, N.J. – A former Camden elementary school principal and his top aide were indicted Monday on charges that they tricked parents and students in the nation's poorest city into paying for outings that were financed by the school district, then kept the thousands of dollars they collected.
They were also indicted, along with another former elementary school principal and her schoolteacher daughter, in a suspected scheme to overbill the district for leadership meetings authorities say never occurred.
Authorities say the ex-principal of H.B. Wilson Elementary School and the top staffer pocketed more than $14,000 — collected in increments as small as $5 — to fund trips to such destinations as the Philadelphia Zoo, Storybook Land and an American Indian reservation.
Teachers helped pupils raise money by holding fundraisers, and some teachers reached into their own pockets to pay for pupils whose parents could not afford bus fees and other costs.
According to census data, Camden is the nation's most impoverished city, with a median household income of just $18,000. The city of 80,000 sits across the Delaware River from Philadelphia.
The ex-principal, Michael Hailey, 65, and the administrator, Patricia Johnson, 57, told teachers to collect $5 to $12 for each pupil per trip, authorities say, even though they knew the outings were approved for payment by the district.
"It is a sad day when leaders in our schools are charged with stealing from their students," said Attorney General Stuart Rabner, who announced the grand jury indictments Monday.
A lawyer for Hailey, Craig Mitnick, said he believes his clients won't be the only ones in the case.
"It's my firm belief that this is the first round of indictments and none of these four people are the big fish in the sea," said Mitnick. "Hopefully, they're not going to be the scapegoats for higher officials in the school district."
Johnson's lawyer did not return a call seeking comment.
Hailey and Johnson were also among four school personnel who prosecutors say billed the public school district more than $25,000 in extra wages for weekend meetings with administrators, teachers and parents that never took place.
They were indicted on the suspected overbilling along with former principal Juanita Worthy, 59, of U.S. Wiggins Elementary School, and Worthy's daughter, Keah, 31, a former teacher at Wilson.
Juanita Worthy's lawyer did not return a phone message seeking comment. Keah Worthy's lawyer, Timothy McGowan, said he had not seen the indictment Monday evening and could not comment.
Bart Leff, a spokesman for the Camden Board of Education, said the school board learned of the alleged wrongdoing last year when parents came to the board to complain that their children were being left home from field trips because they could not afford to pay.
School board policy prohibits elementary or middle-school pupils from being charged for curriculum-related trips.
The two principals and Johnson were suspended with pay last May after a school board investigation into the meeting vouchers. They retired in July while facing district disciplinary action. Keah Worthy no longer works for the district.
All are charged with conspiracy, theft, official misconduct and record tampering.