Principal says secretary's theft caused program cuts, layoffs - Hawaii News Now - KGMB and KHNL

Principal says secretary's theft caused program cuts, layoffs

Mina Muranaka Mina Muranaka
HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) -

Officials at Fern Elementary School said they had to reduce programs and lay off staff after a school secretary stole thousands of dollars.

The Kalihi elementary school's employees are asking Circuit Judge Richard Perkins to give the woman the toughest-possible penalty when she's sentenced later this year. 

Mina Muranaka, 44, appeared in court May 3 and admitted to writing nearly $15,000 in checks from Fern elementary school to herself, her son and for her rent in public housing. 

Hawaii News Now has obtained a petition -- signed by 50 of Fern Elementary's teachers, staff and volunteers -- asking Perkins to assure Muranaka is given a maximum sentence.

School principal Tiare Ulii also sent Perkins a letter explaining programs she cut and staff she laid off because of the thefts. 

Ulii said the school's librarian could not be rehired and several part-time teachers were let go, while field trips were cut because of the financial losses. 

She said a free after-school program for needy children was drastically reduced, from 180 to just 60 students, with eight part-time employees laid off.  Course offerings went from nine to just three, Ulii said.

"It is a travesty that she was able to get away with so much and ruin a beloved program this is needed at this school with this population.  Who knows what we could have instilled, taught or prevented were we able to provide our students with an after-school program," Ulii said. 

"The majority of my students are from a low-income housing area riddled with gangs and drugs," Ulii said. 

The principal said Muranaka gave her son purchase orders to buy food for her family that was supposed to be used for Fern Elementary's cooking class. 

Instead, Ulii said Muranaka's son used school funds to buy pork butt and taro leaves to make laulau he sold to school employees as a fundraiser for his wedding. 

Ulii claimed Muranaka also used school money to buy kalua pig and shoyu chicken to make meals for her son's football team dinners. 

While Muranaka has pleaded guilty to stealing almost $15,000, school officials believe she stole tens of thousands more. But a source said the paperwork is missing that would have proved the higher amount of thefts. 

Under a plea agreement, if Muranaka paid back the money before she was originally set to be sentenced July 11, the state attorney general planned to ask the judge to sentence her to one year in prison. 

If she was unable to pay back the money, the AG planned to ask the judge to sentence her to up to ten years in prison. 

But late Monday a spokesman from the Attorney General's office said Muranaka requested a delay to come up with the money. Her sentencing has been postponed for three months, until October 10, a court spokesman said.

Ulii said when she arrived at Fern as a new principal in September 2010, she sat down to review the budget with Muranaka and discovered nearly $100,000 in deficits in school salary accounts.  Ulii said she had to borrow money from neighboring schools and then use funds from the next school year to pay them back, resulting in cuts at her school.

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