The former treasurer of a parent teacher organization pleaded guilty Wednesday to stealing money from the Cumming Elementary School group.
Jamie Garfield, 37, was ordered to repay what she had taken, which is believed to total nearly $33,000 between April 2008 and 2010.
As part of her negotiated plea, Garfield must also spend 15 years on probation for the three counts of theft by taking, pay a fine of $2,000 and perform 120 hours of community service.
She began repaying the funds following the plea hearing in the Forsyth County Superior Court by presenting a $10,000 cashier’s check to school principal Pam Pajerski.
Garfield tearfully apologized in front of Judge Jeffrey S. Bagley, stating that “she made a mistake.”
“I’ve never done anything like this. I don’t know why I did,” she said. “I always tell my children to make good choices, and I failed to.”
She said she had been writing checks from the PTO for personal purchases.
The checks also required the signature of the organization’s president, who had been signing blank checks for Garfield to make purchases he believed were for the school.
Assistant District Attorney Sandra Partridge said the PTO president at the time had a child battling cancer and had trusted Garfield with the finances.
Partridge disagreed that Garfield had made a mistake, holding up a box filled with information about financial transactions.
“To say it’s a mistake is a one-time thing,” she said. “This is years of deciding to steal.”
According to Partridge, the final theft is believed to have come from the $6,200 raised for playground equipment, which was never purchased.
Garfield was charged in July 2011 as a result of an investigation by the Cumming Police Department.
The organization’s board members reported the thefts to authorities after discovering one of their accounts was overdrawn.
Partridge said the state agreed not to seek prison time for the crimes because the school and the PTO did not want Garfield incarcerated “for the sake of her children.”
Pajerski said the board had come to that decision so the school could move on.
The “most disturbing” part to the board was Garfield breaching the trust and “taking advantage” of a man preoccupied with caring for his child with cancer.
While she felt calling the thefts a mistake was an understatement, Pajerski did thank Garfield for her confession and taking responsibility.
Bagley granted the negotiated plea and the request to serve as a first offender, which will give Garfield an opportunity to clear the felony from her record if she successfully completes her 15 years of probation.
“You deserve to go to prison for what you’ve done,” he said. “Because the principal has come here today and spoken and not requested the court to put you in prison, I will honor that request. But that’s the only reason.”
He also said he was inclined to agree with the negotiated plea since Garfield appeared remorseful, took accountability for her actions in court and has many people who hold her in high regard.
Garfield was accompanied by more than a dozen friends and family members in the courtroom, some of whom spoke on behalf of her character.
She has a strong commitment to her own children and others, according to her father-in-law and other parents who know her as a volunteer cheerleading coach.
Her attorney also said she remains employed despite the charges.
Forsyth County school system officials have previously said PTOs are managed and coordinated by parents.
Unlike parent-teacher associations, or PTAs, they have no larger oversight. The school system does not sponsor PTOs and they are not financially supported by schools.