Paula Barnes, 61, was sentenced on Thursday to 30 days in the Anderson County Jail and 10 years' probation for embezzling $111,000 from the Palestine Independent School District in 2015 and 2016.
Judge Deborah Oaks Evans, of the 87th District Court, ruled that Barnes must pay the money back, in addition to court fines. She also must perform 400 hours of community service.
"I am so remorseful for everything I've done," a visibly distraught Barnes said on the witness stand.
Wearing a black sweater and thick black-rimmed glasses, Barnes sobbed and held her head in her hands throughout much of the hearing.
As administrative assistant to David Atkeisson, the ISD's chief financial officer, Barnes was entrusted with depositing activity funds from events and student fundraisers. She has no previous criminal record.
The investigation began in March 2016, when another employee reported a discrepancy in funds. In June, Barnes confessed to ISD officials that she was garnering cash from the activity deposits in the amount of $60,000 to $80,000.
An external auditing firm confirmed the theft in August 2016. Barnes was arrested in January 2017 for theft of greater than $30,000 but less than $150,000 and released on bond.
“We knew we had a problem,” said ISD Superintendent Jason Marshall of the internal investigation.
The audit revealed that Barnes would move funds for the district's Head Start program into activity funds that were missing part of their cash deposits. A sum of $71,400 was found missing from the Head Start program.
Barnes also worked additional after-hours jobs, which included cleaning the administration building and working sporting events.
After Barnes confessed, the superintendent contacted the district attorney's office.
“Absolutely, she should be held accountable,” Marshall said. “The school district is supported by taxpayers' dollars.”
During the trial, Texas Ranger Nicholas Castle testified that he investigated her personal bank records, including bank statements, loans, checks, and cash deposits. He was a key witness in the prosecution.
Prosecutors played an hour-long interview with Barnes, in which she sobbed loudly and blamed the problems on a series of events involving her son, Jason Barnes, who had a car accident injury and lost his job.
“I was trying to save my son,” she said.
DA Allyson Mitchell presented evidence of checks written to Jason Barnes in various amounts, ranging from $200 to $26,000. Jason Barnes was not present at the hearing, but the defense stated he had a gambling problem.
In 2016, Jason Barnes had an open lawsuit he told his mother would be settled soon. Barnes said her son had promised to give her the settlement money and she would repay the school district.
“My son knows exactly what I've done, and he's going to help me get through this,” Barnes said. “When these other funds become available, I am going to repay the school district.”
Mitchell highlighted the many luxury items paid through Barnes' credit card accounts, such as purchases from QVC, the home shopping network, $2,000 for a Carnival Cruise, and two checks of more than $4,000 paid to Ivan Smith Furniture.
Barnes also testified she used cash to pay her personal expenses and many loans.
The Palestine Police Department did not handle the investigation because some officers had received paychecks from Barnes as off-duty officers at ISD events, such as football games.
Defense witnesses included Jerry Mayo, ISD superintendent (2000-2008, retired) and Patsy Mason, Barnes' mother.
Barnes testified she plans to repay the embezzled money at a rate of $1,000 per month. “I'm going to make my wrongs right,” she said.
Judge Evans concluded it was unlikely that Barnes could repay the school district, due to her limited income. She said Barnes appeared remorseful during the hearing.