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Police investigate reported fraud at Hermantown parent-teacher organization

The PTO raises money for Hermantown Elementary School students and teachers. Its president told police that a member had spent tens of thousands of dollars on themselves over three years.

Hermantown Community Schools sign
A sign for Hermantown Community Schools.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune
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HERMANTOWN — Police are investigating possible fraud at the Hermantown Parent Teacher Organization.

The Hermantown Police Department confirmed Monday there is an active criminal investigation of the organization, which is often referred to as a "PTO." The nonprofit raises money for students in grades K-4 at Hermantown Elementary School, paying for classroom supplies, field trips and other expenses. There is not a similar organization for the school district’s middle and high school grades.

The investigation was launched after Cyndi Lewis, the PTO's president, met with Hermantown police Sept. 22. Lewis provided bank statements and said three PTO officers went through the organization's account statements together, separating the "valid" purchases from the "theft" and overdrafts caused by the "thefts," according to police department records Lewis confirmed to the News Tribune were accurate.

Lewis told police that there were 369 "individual thefts and overdrafts" over the prior three years. The suspected thief had written 31 checks to themselves that total $43,638.50 and "stolen" another $59,378.91 worth of debit card purchases and cash withdrawals.

The organization has stopped all of its major fundraising, Lewis said. Volunteers there have also closed the PTO’s old bank accounts and opened new ones. Lewis told the News Tribune that she couldn't say anything about the investigation itself, but noted the organization is cooperating with law enforcement and the school district.

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School district leaders are “aware of allegations of embezzlement” at the PTO, Superintendent Wayne Whitwam wrote in a prepared statement to the News Tribune.

“As police are investigating we can’t share any details,” Whitwam wrote. “We will provide updates as this moves forward and we are legally allowed.”

The Hermantown PTO is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization. It received about $32,000 in 2019, according to the most recent tax filings available on the Internal Revenue Service’s website. It spent about $25,000 and ended that year with about $86,000 in reserve.

This story was updated at 4:45 p.m. Oct. 3 with additional information about the events leading to the investigation. It was originally posted at 4:15 p.m. Oct. 3.

Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

You can reach him at:
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