Usually it’s the school bully who steals lunch money from the kids.
But in Rialto, it’s allegedly the accountant hired to keep an eye on the lunch money.
When accountant Judith Oakes was arrested on suspicion of embezzling from the school district’s nutrition services department this summer -- allegedly caught on surveillance tape stuffing cash in her bra -- officials said they were staggered when they were told that as much as $3.16 million might be missing.
Oakes faces the prospect of embezzlement and grand theft charges, but the fallout from the lunch money episode could continue as law enforcement agencies and the state Department of Education investigate why the loss was not spotted sooner.
An investigative firm hired by the Rialto Unified School District has so far found a “documented” loss of at least $1.8 million but warned it could reach as high as $3.16 million, including discrepancies that could not be documented. School records go back only to 2005.
The district’s superintendent and his deputy have been placed on leave by the school board.
“That is money that should have been going to students,” said school board Vice President Edgar Montes. “That this betrayal may have been going on for approximately 14 years is disturbing and disgusting.”
Oakes, 49, resigned the day after her arrest Aug. 7 on suspicion of embezzlement and grand theft. A mother of three, Oakes earned $60,000 in her accounting job. Her late husband was a well-respected school principal in Rialto.
Rialto police Capt. Randy De Anda said Oakes, who had worked for the district 16 years, kept tabs on lunch money for 29 district schools.
“The lunch money can really add up,” he said. “She had unfettered access to enormous sums of money over the years -- much of it in cash.”
A search of her home turned up thousands of dollars in cash, De Anda said.
After Oakes’ arrest, the district of 26,408 students hired private investigators, and the Rialto Police Department, the San Bernardino County superintendent of schools office, the state board of education and the San Bernardino County district attorney opened investigations.
Supt. Harold L. Cebrun and his assistant, James S. Wallace, were placed on paid leave, but neither is considered a suspect, De Anda said.
Some school board members are questioning the oversight of the lunch money.
“We have to ask: How could this person get away with this for so long? How did someone not catch her sooner or discover earlier that money was missing and the figures weren’t adding up?” Montes said.
Before going on leave, Cebrun said he knew nothing of the missing money. He told school board members he had not committed a crime and had no knowledge of one.
District officials say they are working to recover the money if possible and implement new practices to oversee lunch funds.
It’s been a tough year in the Rialto school district. A high school basketball coach was shot in a San Bernardino park and later accused by police of withholding information about the attack. Another high school basketball coach was arrested in March and accused of molesting two of his female players.
“I’d say right now, it’s a very dark cloud that hangs over the entire district,” Montes said.
He described the lunch money investigation as being “extremely embarrassing, unfortunate and very sad.”
He added: “If we know our home is dirty, we have a responsibility to clean out our house.”