BENNINGTON -- The former principal of the Readsboro Elementary School admitted Monday to embezzling money from grants and was given a deferred sentence plus community service.
Michael Heller, 41, of Fairfax, pleaded guilty in Vermont Superior Court to one felony count of embezzlement as part of a plea agreement in which the state dropped a petit larceny charge. He agreed to accept a 18-month deferred sentence, meaning that if he stays out of trouble with the law for that period of time the charge will go off his recording. He must also complete 100 hours of community service, repay $4,500 in losses to the school, and participate in mental health counseling as directed by his probation officer.
In January, Heller was arraigned on the allegations that he put money from grants the school had received into a "principal's account" which had not been approved by the school's central office. The account contained $6,094, most of which was from Lowes Corp. given for school security improvements, while Macy's Corp. had given $1,000 for the production of a play. Administrators noticed something was amiss when $94 from Target Corp. had been put in the wrong account.
Heller was asked to provide invoices, which took him time to produce and appeared forged, according to police. Police said Heller made numerous small purchases at various stores between May and December 2013.
When questioned by police, Heller admitted to misusing the funds.
His attorney, David Silver, of Bennington, said Tuesday that his client made a mistake and was in desperate financial circumstances at the time, owing to his mother's medical bills which were being covered by Medicare. Heller's mother had also incurred approximately $1,500 in outstanding parking tickets and was facing an arrest summons.
Silver said that his client fully intended to repay the money, but acknowledges what he did was illegal.
During plea agreement negotiations, Silver said many of Heller's colleagues were interviewed. "All of the people unanimously praised Michael Heller for the amazing job he did lifting the school in terms of academics, pride, and morale," said Silver.
He said many were surprised to hear of the allegations against Heller as they were so out of character for him. Heller, a former Marine honorably discharged, created a successful math program at the school, one that he helped get implemented in the nearby Stamford Elementary School.
Silver said the allegations that Heller had taken money from a student lunch fund were completely false. It was those accusations that formed the basis of the petit larceny charge. Silver also said that despite the "reckless" allegations made by State Police, Heller does have a master's degree.
He said this resolution is fair and will allow Heller to enter the workforce again.