Hillsborough police have charged a former executive director of the Burwell School with embezzling over $100,000 from the Civil War-era site, according to arrest warrants.
Ronda Tucker, 42, of Hillsborough was charged with felony embezzlement. She was accused of spending $174,725.14 on goods and services since 2016, including at restaurants, veterinary offices, airlines, Walmart, Target, Amazon, nail salons and pet stores, a warrant stated.
Tucker also was arrested in August on a felony charge of writing a worthless check valued at $2,256.13. Hillsborough Police Lt. Davis Trimmer said the worthless check charge is not related to the Burwell School embezzlement charge.
Tucker was released from the Orange County jail after posting a $130,000 unsecured bond.
She is scheduled to appear Oct. 21 in Orange County District Court on the worthless check charge. Her court hearing on the embezzlement charge is set for Nov. 22.
Tucker was fired from the Burwell School in June after failing to explain the discrepancies between the site’s bank statements and its financial reports, according to a news release. She had served as executive director since January.
Court records show this was not Tucker’s first criminal charge. She previously was convicted of felony theft in 2005 in Orange County, Florida. Tucker served 100 hours of community service and three years of probation in that case, and was ordered to make restitution.
Florida court records show Tucker paid roughly $1,400 and still owed $15,278 when the bill was turned over to a collections agency in August 2011. In an email, the Orange County Clerk of Court in Orlando, Florida, said last week that Tucker still owed $15,213.70.
No background check
The Burwell School didn’t put Tucker through the usual hiring process or background check when she was hired in 2016, because her job as docent, or guide, didn’t include operational or financial responsibilities, said Brooks Graebner, chairman of the Hillsborough Historic Commission.
The nonprofit commission owns and operates the Burwell School, which was built in the 1800s as a girls’ school and now preserves town and school history, as well as that of the enslaved people and free people of color who worked there.
By late 2016, Tucker had “made herself increasingly useful and helpful and volunteered to do more and more things, and increasingly made herself an asset to the organization,” Graebner said. She was given more responsibility, and in 2017, was named site manager, working under former director Kate Faherty, who retired in December.
“The important lesson here is when you come to trust people, you don’t ask the hard questions. That’s a sad lesson to have to learn,” Graebner said. “I think there was a great deal of affection for Ms. Tucker, and that got in the way of the kind of judgment and oversight that would have in retrospect was very much needed.”
Steve Peck, former commission chairman, told the town’s Tourism Board in August that the missing money may never be recovered.
Hard lesson learned
The commission has made changes to the Burwell School’s financial operations since Tucker was fired, hiring the Blackman and Sloop accounting firm to help with an internal investigation and to provide monthly bookkeeping and financial reports.
Roughly a third of this year’s $74,368 budget is paid with revenues from the town’s 1% tax on prepared food and beverages, according to Tourism Board records. Most of the remaining expenses are covered through fundraisers and program fees.
The commissioners have learned a hard but important lesson, Graebner said. They are putting more volunteer hours and money into the historic site and its mission, he said, and they will start looking for a new director later this year. Faherty is helping to run the site until a new director can be hired.
The focus is on finding the right person, doing the required background checks, and ensuring adequate personnel and operational policies are in place, Graebner said.
“One of our commissioners has adopted the phrase that we’ve all now picked up on — “Burwell Strong” — as a way to express solidarity and commitment,” Graebner said. Burwell School is “still as culturally and historically significant as it’s ever been. We’ve lost funds, but we’ve not lost the site, nor have we lost our mission.”