Despite spending four years in prison for arson and grand theft, and having multiple arrests for writing bad checks, Lori Bergeron became president of the board at the Manatee School of Arts and Sciences, a small charter school in Bradenton.
On Friday, she was sentenced to eight months in jail for stealing more than $27,000 from the school she was overseeing.
Bergeron pleaded no contest to charges of a scheme to defraud, and in addition to jail time, she will have to pay back the $27,591 she admitted to stealing from the school.
Honestly, in cases like this, I would want the harshest punishment available. When you’re stealing from children, it’s a betrayal.
Rich Ramsay, MSAS principal
School principal Richard Ramsay said before the plea hearing that he hoped Bergeron was punished to the fullest extent of the law.
“Honestly in cases like this, I would want the harshest punishment available,” said Rich Ramsay, MSAS principal. “When you’re stealing from children, it’s a betrayal.”
Bergeron is a convicted felon with multiple arrests in her history. She spent close to four years in prison from 2003 to 2007 after pleading no contest to charges of grand theft and arson, according to the state department of corrections. She was ordered to pay $100,171 restitution in the grand theft case.
Ramsay, who became principal at the school after Bergeron had joined the board, said the school district provided a background check on Bergeron to previous school administrators, but she was allowed to serve on the board anyway.
A 2016 audit of the school’s practices by the accounting firm Shinn & Co. conducted after the fraud came to light confirmed Ramsay’s assertion.
“Manatee School of Arts and Sciences’ previous principal and School Board chose to allow a board member to join and become president who failed the background process through the (Manatee County) School Board,” Shinn’s report reads. “This same board member was then added as signatory on all bank accounts.”
Former MSAS principal Paul Galloway could not be reached for comment. He taught middle school language arts and social studies at Forest Grove Middle School in Fort Pierce last school year, according to his Linkedin page and the school’s webpage.
“Personally, Mrs. Bergeron would never have been allowed on the board, let alone be in a position to handle money, if it had been under my watch,” current principal Ramsay wrote in an email. “Sadly, this transpired before my start as principal and I/we here at the school were left to deal with the aftermath. Those (financial) issues have been remedied, we have set up very strict best-practice policies and procedures for our financial dealings, and we are working well within our projected budgets.”
Under the terms of her plea agreement, Bergeron will have to pay back $10,000 before she reports to Manatee County jail in 120 days. After she completes her sentence, she will be on probation for 72 months and will pay back the remaining $17,591 in monthly installments.
According to the sheriff’s office, auditors examining the school’s finances in 2016 discovered that Bergeron had written checks to Harbor Bank, signed them herself and cashed them between April 12 and June 30, 2016. At the time she had authority to write checks, but Ramsay was supposed to sign off on the checks as well.
Ramsay spoke with Bergeron on a phone call being recorded by sheriff’s office detectives, and she admitted to him her guilt and offered to pay back $450 to $500 a month, but she did not want to commit to a repayment plan.
Ramsay said $27,000 was a substantial amount of money for a school the size of MSAS.
“That’s 40 percent of our annual mortgage,” Ramsay said. “It’s not an insignificant amount. Any small school, every dollar that comes in counts.”
Manatee School of Arts and Sciences is an elementary school in Bradenton with roughly 150 students. It is not affiliated with Manatee School for the Arts, which is a middle school and high school in Palmetto.
Bergeron did not speak during her hearing, and she declined to comment afterward.