A former employee of the Jasper School District pleaded guilty Wednesday in federal court to embezzling more than $145,000, according to documents filed in Missouri's Western District Court.
Karla Justice, 55, of Columbus, Kansas, was head bookkeeper for the district between 2009 and 2016, when she voluntarily resigned. During that period, she had full control over the district’s financial accounts, according to charging documents.
She used that power to authorize more than $80,000 in extra pay for herself between 2014 and 2017, according to her plea agreement. She also padded her retirement account by more than $6,000, and investigators discovered numerous payments, totaling roughly $14,000 in payments, that were made for transactions unrelated to education.
School employees told investigators that Justice, who also goes by Karla Jessee, repeatedly asked them to sign off on checks. When they refused, she used other employees’ signature stamps.
Justice also opened a Home Depot credit card and made personal purchases of more than $2,100 using district funds.
She pleaded guilty Wednesday to one count of wire fraud and one count of credit card fraud.
The district's insurance policy has already reimbursed the school for the embezzlement, according to Superintendent Christina Hess.
Hess said the actual amount embezzled could be higher.
"($145,000) represents the amount that through the forensic audit they believe can be proved," she said.
Justice's guilty plea comes as the district navigates treacherous financial straits.
A budget shortfall led district leaders to more closely analyze school finances, which led them to payroll discrepancies and expenditures that were apparently unrelated to school business.
When asked to explain the discrepancies, Justice submitted her resignation.
The theft coincided with a failed bond issue and a shrinking local tax base, forcing officials to eliminate summer school and childcare offerings and cut staff positions.
The districts reserve fund had crashed dramatically. Hess said the embezzlement "was definitely a contributing factor."
"In the space of about five years, we went from about 35 percent down to 3 percent," she told the Globe in an earlier interview, speaking only on the condition that her comments be held until the charges were filed.
Hess, previously the high school principal, is working two jobs at once: principal and superintendent. She says the district had to tighten its belt to weather the crisis.
"People understood that we couldn’t spend money on anything," she said. "We paid bills, we paid staff, and not much else.There were a lot of people wearing more than one hat."
Hess oversaw the district's transition two years ago to a four-day schedule, eliminating Monday classes in a further effort to pinch pennies. Administrators say that change, at least, has been beneficial, reducing disciplinary incidents without hurting test scores. Parents and teachers have largely stood behind the change.
Hess did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday night.
Justice is subject to a sentence up to 35 years in federal prison. The actual sentence will be determined by a judge in a later hearing.