A former head of New Mission High School in Boston was charged with misusing nearly $40,000 in school funds to pay for personal expenditures, including two vacations to Barbados for herself and several friends, the US attorney’s office and Boston police announced Tuesday.
Naia Wilson, 60, who ran the Hyde Park school between 2006 and 2019, is facing one count of wire fraud in federal district court as part of an alleged scheme to defraud Boston Public Schools of $38,806 for her own personal use. Under a plea deal submitted to the court Tuesday, Wilson will plead guilty and waive indictment.
Wilson, of Mattapan, allegedly requested checks to be issued for specific individuals from a fiscal agent overseeing an external school account between 2016 and 2019 and then “fraudulently endorsed those checks herself and then deposited them into her own bank account without the nominee ever knowing or authorizing her to do so,” the law enforcement agencies said.
According to court documents, Wilson allegedly requested the checks for stipends and expense reimbursements for the individuals, but some of them had never worked at New Mission.
For both the 2016 and 2018 Barbados trips, Wilson asked the external fiscal agent to issue checks payable to other people who went on the trips and then converted that money to pay for the all-inclusive hotel and airfare. Wilson also fraudulently endorsed the checks used to pay for the 2018 trip, the agencies said.
“We will not allow this type of gross abuse of authority and responsibility fly under the radar,” Acting United States Attorney Joshua S. Levy said in a statement. “Individuals who take advantage of public trust to line their pockets will be investigated and held accountable.”
The wire fraud charge is specifically tied to a check for $1,400 from the school fund that was deposited into Wilson’s personal bank account in December 2018.
If a judge approves the plea deal, Wilson could serve up to 90 days in prison instead of up to 20 years, will be subject to 24 months of supervised release, and will have to pay back the $38,806.
Her attorney, Peter Charles Horstmann, characterized the misspending as a lapse in judgement, noting people who work in the public sector are under a great deal of pressure to spend the money in their budgets. But he added Wilson recognizes what she did was wrong.
“Is it a crime? Yes. Is it a terrible lapse in judgement? Yes,” he said. “She will pay her victims back and get on with her life. We hope the sentencing judge will balance all her good work at New Mission against a modest lapse in judgment.”
New Mission is an autonomous pilot school in BPS and serves about 600 students in grades 7-12. During Wilson’s tenure there, the school achieved great accomplishments, including boosting its four-year graduation rate from 57.6 percent in 2006 to 96.5 percent in 2019. The school also won the “School on the Move Prize,” awarded each year by the Boston nonprofit EdVestors, in 2012 for recognition of the strong growth in student achievement.
Wilson left New Mission in 2019 and became principal of Randolph Community Middle School. That school’s website still lists her as its leader. Randolph school officials couldn’t be reached for comment.
The federal probe into Wilson’s spending occurred as BPS was tightening financial oversight at its schools. In 2018, a city-commissioned audit by Ernst & Young found many examples of questionable expenditures, missing receipts, and sloppy bookkeeping associated with student activity accounts and other funds at individual schools.
The audit flagged New Mission, noting it was unable to produce 49 banks statements for a student activity account that had an ATM card. Auditors later learned the school failed to disclose it had another account, for a foundation grant, that had no ledgers or receipts, or other associated documents.
The city enlisted Ernst & Young after an IRS audit a year earlier faulted schools for using student activity funds on programs and other expenses not related to student activities.
Boston Superintendent Mary Skipper said BPS has implemented additional internal protocols and procedures to prevent situations like Wilson’s from happening again.
“We would like to thank the US Attorney’s Office for its dedication and professionalism in this investigation as well as its efforts to restore misappropriated funds to our students,” she said. “The Boston Public Schools takes its responsibility as a steward of public funds very seriously.”
But Matthew Cahill, executive director of the Boston Finance Commission, said BPS still gives schools too much spending freedom.
“They want the schools to have autonomy, but that comes with trust,” he said. “I’m not a fan of it. You have to have central oversight. ... When you see a breach like this it really disintegrates the trust people have in government and that is upsetting to us.”
The Center for Collaborative Education was the fiscal agent for the school funds that Wilson spent. It currently holds a $6.5 million contract with BPS to serve as a fiscal agent for the district’s autonomous schools.