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Former Camden school official pleads guilty to fraud

Patricia Johnson admitted her role in stealing field trip money.
By Troy Graham
Inquirer Staff Writer

A former administrator at Camden’s H.B. Wilson Elementary School pleaded guilty yesterday to conspiring to steal more than $14,000 that was supposed to pay for student field trips.

Patricia Johnson, 58, of Atco, also admitted to trying to bill the school board $25,000 for attending meetings that never took place.

She faces three to five years in prison at her sentencing on Sept. 22, and she has agreed to testify against three codefendants in the case, the state Attorney General’s Office said.

The case against them is the only one to emerge from a sweeping criminal probe that state investigators launched into spending practices and alleged test rigging in the Camden schools in 2006.

Johnson was the top assistant at Wilson. The former principal, Michael Hailey, faces a July trial date on charges related to the two schemes that Johnson pleaded guilty to.

Prosecutors said Johnson and Hailey, 66, of Delran, told teachers that parents had to pay for field trips even though they knew the school district was going to cover the expenses.

School board policy prohibits the school from charging parents for field trips that are related to curriculum. Nonetheless, teachers conducted fund-raisers to help students who couldn’t afford to pay for the trips, prosecutors said.

Between May 2005 and May 2006, Johnson and Hailey collected $14,298 for 13 field trips to places including the Philadelphia Zoo, the Franklin Institute and Wheaton Village. Parents paid between $5 and $12 per trip.

“It’s outrageous that a school leader would conspire to steal from students entrusted to her care,” state Attorney General Anne Milgram said.

Hailey’s attorney, Jeff Zucker, did not return a phone call seeking comment. School board president Sara Davis declined to comment on Johnson’s guilty plea.

Parents have been outraged by the scandal. Fourteen have joined a lawsuit against the school board that is pending in Superior Court.

“I’m glad they found one person guilty,” said Shelane Nichols, whose daughter attends Wilson. She said she was bilked out of about $100 in field trip money.

“I think that [Johnson] deserves to be convicted and serve time,” she said. “That was something that was rightfully wrong.”

Kevin Mitchell, the parents’ attorney, said he hoped the school board would offer his clients a settlement in light of Johnson’s guilty plea.

Johnson and Hailey also were charged with submitting $25,000 worth of phony pay vouchers for meetings that never took place.

Prosecutors charged two others in that scheme – Juanita Worthy, a former principal at U.S. Wiggins Elementary School and her daughter Keah Worthy, a former Wilson teacher.

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

Johnson admitted yesterday to preparing vouchers seeking payment for 14 employees who supposedly attended eight leadership council meetings at both schools.

School board investigators uncovered the scheme, prosecutors said, and the vouchers were never paid.

Prosecutors also said the four defendants pressured teachers into telling the school board that the meetings had taken place. The board reprimanded nine of those employees and did not renew the contracts of two others.

Juanita Worthy, 60, and Keah Worthy, 32, both of Evesham, face charges in that case.

Johnson, Hailey and Juanita Worthy all retired from the district in June 2006. Keah Worthy also left the district before charges were brought in the case in March.

Since June 2006, a state grand jury has been conducting a wide-ranging investigation into the Camden schools, probing financial records and allegations of cheating on standardized testing at several.

Wilson and Wiggins were among the schools that posted suspiciously high 2005 test results, which the state Department of Education said were boosted by “adult interference.” Scores plummeted in 2006 after the state sent monitors.

So far, the grand jury has charged just the four defendants in the field trip and vouchers cases. No one has been charged in connection with the test scores.

In November, the school board reinstated a central figure in the scandal, Roger M. Robinson, saying there wasn’t enough evidence to conclude that he tampered with scores.

Contact staff writer Troy Graham at 856-779-3893 or tgraham@phillynews.com.

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