Fired K-12 employee ordered to pay $19K
A former employee of the Colby School District was convicted of felony misconduct in office last week and ordered to pay nearly $19,000 in restitution and court costs in a case that involved misuse of a district credit card and tampering with a student’s grades. Lisa Steen, 44, of Dorchester pled no contest to the felony misconduct charge and two misdemeanor counts of theft in a business setting. She was placed on probation for three years and ordered to pay a total $18,991, which includes $16,420 in restitution to the district and its insurance company.
A probation agent will set up a payment plan for the restitution, which must be paid back during her three years of probation. A separate payment plan of $50 per month was established for her to pay back about $2,600 in court costs.
Steen was also ordered to complete 40 hours of community service, write a letter of apology to the school board and attend any counseling or treatment deemed appropriate by probation. She is required to maintain employment and stay away from the school district grounds, with exceptions granted for matters involving her children.
As part of a plea deal with the Clark County district attorney, five other felony charges were dismissed but read into the record. Those include identity theft, two counts of misappropriating identification information to obtain money, illegally modifying computer data and theft in a business setting of over $5,000.
On the felony misconduct charge, Steen could have been sentenced to as much as three years and six months in jail, along with a $10,000 fine. On each of the misdemeanor theft charges, she faced up to nine months in jail and a maximum fine of $10,0000.
Steen was charged last December with six felonies, nearly a year after she was fired from her secretarial job for charging over $7,000 in personal expenses to a district credit card and concealing the charges by improperly coding them. District officials also found evidence that she altered her daughter’s grades, apparently in an effort to qualify for more scholarship money.
The district’s claim for $16,420 in restitution covers the initial $7,020 in unauthorized credit card charges plus $9,400 for the cost of a forensic audit paid for by the district’s insurance company.
Superintendent Steven Kolden spoke to the court via Zoom at the June 23 sentencing hearing, calling Steen’s actions “a significant violation of the trust we placed in her and the community had placed in her.”
Kolden said the school board requested that Steen be convicted of at least one felony charge and that she plead “guilty” rather than “no contest” to the charges.
“A plea of no contest we felt was not an acceptance of her personal responsibility for her actions,” he said.
District attorney Melissa Inlow said she took the school board’s request for a guilty plea into consideration, but decided that a no contest plea “would still hold her accountable” because of the legal consequences she faces. However, Inlow did feel a felony conviction was warranted, and Judge Lyndsey Brunette agreed.
The DA alluded to the college admissions scandal involving celebrities and other parents who paid bribes to get their students into Ivy League colleges.
“As we have seen in the news, parents who take extreme steps to get their children into schools have faced prison sentences on the federal side,” Inlow said. “Obviously, this is a little bit different, but these are some extreme actions that need to have consequences.”
Steen’s defense attorney, Karl Kelz, however, said his client’s situation was different than those high-profile cases, as she was in “a dire financial situation” and has since admitted to her crimes.
“Certainly it is a great difference between offering $500,000 in the form of a bribe to get a child into college versus the changing of a grade,” he said.
Kelz also pointed out that his client has no prior criminal history and has repeatedly expressed remorse to him about what she did.
Steen declined to make a statement to the court when given the opportunity.
Before announcing the sentence, Judge Brunette said she was particularly concerned about misconduct on the part of someone working for a school district, which is supposed to provide role models for students.
Judge Brunette said Steen changing her daughter’s grades could also have affected other students in the district, based on its impact on class ranking.
“I am saddened that a person who was entrusted to be in that position to safeguard records of students, to safeguard taxpayer dollars misused them in some of the more — the most egregious ways a public official can,” she said.
Judge Brunette denied a request for possible early discharge from probation after two years, saying that Steen needed to be on probation for the full three years.
“And if Ms. Steen can’t cooperate or doesn’t abide by the conditions of probation, it would be an immediate sanction of incarceration so that it is swift punishment,” Judge Brunette said.