A WOMAN who stole up to £188,000 from a Cumbrian school while employed as a finance manager has been jailed.
Ghislain Sharron Smithson, 52, splashed out on holidays at thousands of pounds a time as she raided precious Keswick School reserves while in day-to-day control of its purse strings during a decade of trusted employment.
Between 2012 and 2018, trusted Smithson created fake companies and bogus invoices to channel cash for her own benefit, over £100,000 being diverted through around 50 separate transactions into a single account in her name during a four-year period. She also took advantage of a software fault which allowed her to authorise payments from school accounts using her signature alone – despite dual signatures actually being required.
Smithson even continued to steal despite attending crucial budget meetings at which colleagues battled to cut costs and avoid job losses. Her illegal activity was finally uncovered after she moved jobs last year, a finance officer conducting an overview and finding irregularities.
More than £4,200 had been paid out of school coffers by Smithson towards a luxury 10-day Caribbean break for two to Antigua. It emerged a school credit card was used to buy foreign currency totalling more than £30,000; to make payments to Jet2 Holidays; and for a Premier Inn booking.
Prosecutor Gerard Rogerson told Carlisle Crown Court today (TUES) how an “overwhelming” emotional burden had been placed on other staff by Smithson stealing school cash to “fund her own luxury lifestyle”.
Headteacher Simon Jackson described the discovery of Smithson’s theft as “devastating” in a statement detailing the huge knock-on effect. “Her actions have taken money away from some of the most vulnerable and deprived schoolchildren – and she sat in meetings where these hard decisions were made,” the prosecutor said, summarising Mr Jackson’s observations.
“These actions in breach of trust have harmed children, their families and the educational profession. The austerity of the last seven years has made the life of the school tough. Hard decisions were taken and it was a struggle to find ways to reduce expenditure, whilst trying to avoid redundancies.
“Some posts were left vacant, others were made redundant. Fund-raising was essential, as was increasing class sizes. These were ‘some of the most gruelling meetings and decisions the school has ever made’ – and the defendant was present throughout.”
Mr Rogerson added: “The children have had less support and Mr Jackson is angry and upset that a number of children could have benefited from more one-to-one work, had the budget allowed, and that these decisions could have made a difference to their final outcomes.”
The court heard a new finance system had since been implemented to address areas exploited by Smithson, of Sandybeck Way, Cockermouth.
Judge Nicholas Barker learned the sum stolen would be equivalent to depriving every current pupil of around £20 per annum for every year of their secondary education – or a year’s total funding provided to the school for more than a whole class of students.
David Hammond, chairman of the local governing body, had stated: “The consequences of this theft will reverberate through the school for a long time.”
Smithson, a woman of previous good character, admitted theft and was said to be “very sorry” for her crime and the consequences. Her offending occurred after she and her husband had been made bankrupt, their successful Cockermouth pub and catering business having been “wiped out” in days by a catastrophic flood in the late 2000s; and against a backdrop of personal ill health and family bereavements.
“The defendant struggles to understand why she acted as she did,” said her barrister, Judith McCullough.
Jailing Smithson for 32 months, Judge Barker said: “It is the context of the money being stolen by you in a position of trust which makes the dishonesty so wicked.” He added: “You have left a stain upon the school and that has a lasting impact upon it, and had an impact upon the children.”
Detective Constable James Graham, of the West Cumbria crime command department, led the investigation.
He said: “Smithson occupied a position of trust – but she abused this to steal a significant amount of money from the school.
“The vigilance of the school uncovered this.
“We worked closely with the school during this investigation and financial inquiries were able to piece together what had happened.”
Gerard Rogerson for the CPS said: Ghislain Smithson diverted money away from the school and the pupils in order to fund her own lifestyle, including foreign holidays and luxury items she could not legitimately afford.
“She faked invoices with bogus telephone numbers and VAT numbers from companies which no longer existed. She committed the offenses over a number of years and even though this case is now concluded, the repercussions of her selfish actions will continue to affect the school for years to come.”
“We worked closely with the police and the school to build a strong case against her, and when faced with the overwhelming evidence against her; she was left with no other option than to enter a guilty plea.”
The current headmaster for the school, Mr. Simon Jackson, in his victim personal statement said: “All persons and members of staff are trusted to act professionally in the best interest of the children and of the school at all times, it is therefore extremely disappointing and sad that a trusted member of staff who appeared highly professional appears to have taken actions to the detriment of the children and the good running of the school.”