Former principal charged with stealing money from school

April 9, 2008 4:44:05 PM PDT
A Chicago elementary school that's come a long way in scholastic achievement is reeling after news that its former principal has been charged with stealing school money. Mirna Diaz, a "superstar" principal in the Chicago Public Schools system faces 42 criminal counts for theft, forgery and unlawful conduct. Her lawyer says "extenuating circumstances" will explain her actions.

In the last few years, test scores have doubled at Chicago's Nobel Elementary. Community members say a crusading principal, Diaz, was behind the achievement, made while fighting gangs and drugs.

"Ms. Diaz, I loved her, she was a great principal to me, she did a lot of things for the kids," said Frankie Ward, grandparent of Nobel student.

But according to CPS and police investigators, Ms. Diaz did a lot for herself, forging checks and misrepresenting vendor invoices that put $35,000 of school money into her pocket. The 54-year-old CPS veteran made $137,000 per year when she went on unpaid medical leave in February. Her lawyer maintains that she made some wrong decisions while going through a divorce. And because she has paid back $23,000, plans to make full restitution and has no criminal history, she should be spared jail.

Indeed, supporters say new soccer, basketball and splash-pad facilities will be constructed there due in part to Diaz's lobbying.

"I know her as a human being, is very good," said Rosa Galban, parent of Nobel graduates. "She is very good person, very good principal."

But CPS inspector general James Sullivan, fresh from the case of a CPS official who stole $456,000 from Simeon High School in 2006, says his office received a tip about improprieties at Nobel and word that school money went from Diaz to her children, who teach at nearby Nixon Elementary. Diaz's attorney says he has an answer to the case against his client.

"Just as somebody who loses a civil suit and has to pay back money doesn't go to jail, we don't feel there is a, that is not criminally responsible," said Steven Hunter, Diaz attorney.

Diaz faces three to seven years in jail if she is convicted of the theft charges, which are Class 2 felonies. CPS is working to fire her, but her lawyer says she has applied for retirement. Diaz's age and service qualify her for a full pension. Hunter said that should be granted, he expects, before CPS discipline against her is carried out.

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