Teacher accused of stealing

By DONG-PHUONG NGUYEN, LETITIA STEIN St. Petersburg Times
Published Feb 9, 2007

Police say she diverted cash for Chamberlain High’s seniors to her account.

For months, the Chamberlain High School seniors picked up trash, washed cars and served hot dogs to help pay for their upcoming prom and other graduation activities. For safekeeping, they turned over earnings to the senior class adviser, a popular teacher at the school.

But according to Tampa police, adviser Cheryl Maria Foster- Lawrentz deposited the money into her personal bank account, embezzling almost $10,000 from the students. “Everyone is appalled,” senior class president Maritza Dandache said Thursday outside the school. “It’s very surprising.”

Maritza said the seniors washed cars every weekend over the summer and got paid by the booster club to pick up trash around the school on Saturdays. However, their big moneymaker was working the concession stands at Raymond James Stadium during sporting events, where they earned a percentage of the sales. About 10 to 15 students worked Buccaneers and University of South Florida games, earning about $1,000 a game, Maritza said.

According to Tampa police Sgt. Jim Contento, Foster-Lawrentz deposited 21 checks into her personal account at Suncoast Schools Federal Credit Union from November 2005 to December 2006. The school was alerted to the deposits by a credit union employee who grew suspicious. The checks, totalling $9,559.15, were made out to “Chamberlain High School.”

Chamberlain assistant principal Mimi Howlett said the credit union is returning the stolen money to the students. A spokesman for the credit union could not be reached to confirm that.

Foster-Lawrentz has been charged with felony counts of grand theft and fraud. The 32-year-old teacher from Land O’Lakes was free on bail Wednesday afternoon. She could not be reached for comment. She was suspended with pay from Chamberlain, where she has taught students with disabilities since 2000, school officials said.

“It appears to be the classic case of the loyal and trusted employee who was taking advantage of the innocent kids here,” Contento said.

Foster-Lawrentz was widely known in the community around the North Tampa school. At Chamberlain, she was a past sponsor of the Chiefettes, a student dance group. She co-chaired the exceptional education department, according to the school Web site.

A 1992 graduate of Gaither High, Foster-Lawrentz has taught in Hillsborough schools for 10 years. She coached cheerleaders at her previous school, Wharton High.

“She seemed very trustworthy,” said Chamberlain junior Bianca Rosen Siegel, who tried out for the Chiefettes under Foster- Lawrentz. “I definitely didn’t think that she was an embezzler.”

On Thursday, students were buzzing about the teacher’s arrest, while teachers and administrators tried to snuff out gossip.

Hillsborough school officials are looking into the charges against Foster-Lawrentz. The process can take two weeks or longer, said Linda Kipley, director of professional standards.

Nothing in her professional record hints at the troubles that Chamberlain discovered.

“She is a tremendous asset to the CHS community,” former principal Pam Peralta wrote of Foster-Lawrentz in a 2004 evaluation. “Consistently goes beyond the call of duty.”

Ms. Foster-Lawrentz is now represented by Roger Futerman.

Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at nguyen@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5312.

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