Tensions were so high among members of a San Diego County parent-teacher association in March that a sheriff’s sergeant attended a PTA meeting that month to ensure the safety of the president, who was being accused by other members of stealing from the organization, the sergeant said Wednesday.
Nearly nine months later, the former PTA president, 30-year-old Kaitlyn Faith Birchman, was arrested on suspicion of embezzling at least $14,800 from the Imperial Beach Charter School PTA, Sgt. Karl Miller said.
Birchman was taken into custody Tuesday night at her Temecula home, according to jail records and Miller, who attended the PTA meeting while assigned to the Imperial Beach substation. He has since moved to the sheriff’s financial crimes unit, which investigated the alleged embezzlement.
Birchman, the subject of an arrest warrant issued in November, was booked into jail in the Riverside area, then released on bond, Miller said.
Investigators have been in contact with Birchman since they opened an investigation into her actions after that confrontational PTA meeting in March, and Birchman was cooperative and sat for an interview following her arrest Wednesday, Miller said. She had moved from Imperial Beach to Temecula in June.
Birchman did not immediately return a voicemail seeking comment Wednesday.
According to Miller, Birchman became president of the Imperial Beach Charter School PTA, where two of her children attended school, in July 2016. But, he said, she didn’t begin skimming money from the organization until about a year later, during the 2017-2018 school year.
During the school year, Miller said, she began stealing cash from purchases and donations made during school book fairs, PTA membership drives and other events. When it came time to pay vendors who had sponsored the events or fronted products to sell, she allegedly wrote checks on a closed account.
Birchman took advantage of an informal accounting system and a lack of oversight, Miller told the Union-Tribune. During her last few months in charge of the PTA, Birchman allegedly planned several cash-only fundraising events.
“She didn’t get rich; there were no extravagant purchases,” Miller said. “She was living paycheck to paycheck” and was on a food assistance program, “but that doesn’t make what she did right. She was put in a position of trust; it should have never happened.”
Other PTA members became aware of the alleged embezzlement in early 2018, setting up the adversarial March meeting at which she was removed as PTA president, Miller said. The school requested a law enforcement presence “to make sure [Birchman] was safe” at the meeting, which was mediated by a member of a national PTA organization, Miller said.
Angry parents “wanted to try and convict her on the spot,” Miller said, and at one point in the meeting, the sergeant felt the need to stand up to address the crowd. He explained to the parents that nobody had reported the alleged crime to law enforcement and that, once it was reported, it would be thoroughly investigated, but it would “not be solved overnight.”
Soon after the meeting, a PTA member made a report at the Imperial Beach substation, and the case was transferred to the sheriff’s financial crimes unit, Miller said. Investigators subpoenaed bank records, credit card records and more during the lengthy investigation.
“The PTA had to cancel planned events; its funds were down to nothing,” Miller said. “You have parents that can barely make it investing money in the PTA for extracurricular activities for their children — yeah, they’re going to be upset. This was a messy case and probably prevented a lot of kids from having some fun at the end of last school year.”
Current PTA members have speculated Birchman stole more than $40,000 “based on current fundraising totals,” Miller said, but investigators have turned up evidence that she embezzled $14,802.
Miller said he didn’t think Birchman became PTA president with the intent to steal from the organization.
“With the evidence there is, I’m leaning toward her taking advantage of lax checks and balances.”
Alex Riggins writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune
City News Service contributed to this report.
Riggins writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.