HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) – A former Fern Elementary School secretary pleaded guilty Thursday to stealing nearly $15,000 in school funds over three years. Unlike one public school employees who recently admitted to theft, she will likely spend time behind bars.
Williamina Muranaka, 44, appeared in state court and admitted to writing $14,818 in checks from Fern Elementary in Kalihi to herself, her son and the state for her rent in a Kalihi housing project over a three-year period.
As Circuit Judge Richard Perkins went over the details of her guilty plea, Muranaka wiped away tears.
Prosecutors said because of her thefts, Fern Elementary had to cancel some school activities.
"She took more than money from the school," said Deputy Attorney General Kevin Takata. "What she took was activities and programs from children, children who have very little. What she took was educational experiences that cannot be replaced. She took life experiences that cannot be relived."
She also pleaded guilty to bribery.
"She helped order and pay for printer and toner cartridges at vastly exorbitant prices. And in return, she got gift cards in excess of $2,000," Takata said.
Outside the courtroom, Muranaka declined an interview.
Susan Arnett, the public defender who's representing Muranaka, said she was "virtually" the sole bread winner for her family.
"This money wasn't used for vacations or cars or anything extra in life. It was used for the basic necessities of life. She made a terrible mistake. She's acknowledging that mistake today, and she's going to go on to try to rectify it as best she can," Arnett said.
Under a plea agreement, if Muranaka pays back the money before she's sentenced July 11, the Attorney General will ask that she be sent to jail for one year with five years probation.
But if she does not repay the money by then, the AG will ask a judge to sentence her to up to ten years in prison.
"She's going to do her best to pay the money back, to start with. And from there she'll do everything else she can that she needs to to restore herself in the eyes of the community," Arnett said.
Because she pleaded guilty to one count of bribery, Muranaka is not eligible to plea to a "deferred acceptance of guilt."
That's what other school officials busted for theft recently have pleaded to in order to avoid prison time.
"We need to send a message to the community that this type of behavior will not be tolerated," Takata said.
The thefts continued from 2007 until 2010, when the school principal discovered cash missing from the school's petty cash box, Takata said.
In June 2011, the former school secretary at Pearlridge Elementary pleaded guilty to stealing nearly $70,000 over two and a half years. Denise Hayashi, 41, who paid the money back, avoided prison time but must perform 1,500 hours of community service.
The Department of Education said a combination of more training, more oversight and the use of new technology should curtail employee theft cases.
"To have this happen is not right for the kids, the parents that are contributing and the taxpayers," said Amy Kunz, the Department of Education's chief financial officer.
Kunz said the DOE has increased training for school employees who deal with cash and is conducting more financial audits.
"Some of them are surprise audits. But we've also looked entire audits on the local school accounts, on who they're writing their checks to. Just a very comprehensive audit on every school," Kunz said.
The DOE also plans to add new technology allowing cashless transactions when parents and kids pay for all kinds of small expenses, such as excursion and bus fees.
Kunz hopes to have new electronic payment systems installed in all public schools by the end of next school year.