Lancaster headteacher gives emotional statement to court as disgraced school office worker jailed for thefts

A former school office worker who stole almost £36,000 from a struggling high school over a four year period has been jailed for 21 months.

Thursday, 29th October 2020, 2:32 pm
Updated Thursday, 29th October 2020, 2:36 pm

Joanne Sowerby, 46, of Chapel View, Overton, Morecambe, helped herself to funds paid to Central Lancaster High School by various children's sporting clubs to rent out facilities.

She treated herself to expensive Louboutin shoes while the school 's staff and pupils were suffering the effects of significant budget cuts, and when she took voluntary redundancy in 2018, grateful headteacher Nicola Hall allowed her to accompany the children on a trip to London as Sowerby had remarked she had always wanted to visit the city.

The funds Sowerby stole meant subsidies for music lessons for families who could not afford them had to be reduced, and the establishment of an important fund for vulnerable young people to prevent future school exclusions wasn't able to proceed.

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Headteacher Mrs Hall

Sowerby, who had joined the school in 2005 as a receptionist, admitted theft by an employee between August 2014 and October 2018 of £35,949.40 and possession of criminal property.

Kimberley Obrusik, prosecuting, said Sowerby was given more responsibility in 2014 when the business manager had to go on sick leave.

The office dealt with several tasks including finances from facilities rented out from the school by various local dance, football and karate clubs.

Mrs Hall discovered the theft when an e-mail sent to a dance teacher, who rented facilities, was found to contain Sowerby's personal bank account details for payment due to the school.

A probe found 43 transactions over four years totalling 19,709.66.

When confronted Sowerby was asked if there was anyone else who had been the subject of theft - her response was not that she knew of.

However, it was found 13 cheques totalling £ 16,239.74 that were owed to the school from local dance schools and children's sporting clubs had been paid into Sowerby's own bank account, with either the school's name crossed out or hers added.

Sowerby told police she had bought luxury items with the proceeds as she wanted to be seen as "somebody who could cope. "

In an emotional victim statement, Mrs Hall, who has been the headteacher since 2016, described the devastating impact the thefts had on the school community, explaining how

budgetary constraints meant the governing body had to make difficult decisions to restructure, resulting in staff having reduced hours.

She added: " During this time Joanne was rewarding herself with the equivalent of an additional salary each month."

She said it cost the school and council several thousands for the accounting anomalies to be revealed, and that staff had considered Sowerby a friend and felt "the trust of them and their school had been abused.

She added: " The word most frequently used by colleagues is betrayal.

"Central Lancaster High School had been unable to invest in any new ICT equipment but this sum of money would have made a difference

"This feels like a terrible injustice to these children."

The court heard business staff were subjected to stress and anxiety as they were subject to audit procedures as a result of the thefts, with one taking early retirement.

Mrs Hall said:" I feel deeply upset a trusted long term member of staff who was absolutely aware of the ongoing cutbacks could selfishly act in this way.

Defending, Sarah Magill said Sowerby had used her time since her arrest to "tackling and understanding the root cause of her offering", bettering herself and assisting others through voluntary work, and wanted to make repayments as soon as she could gain employment.

In a character reference, Carol Bristow, quality improvement lead for Lancashire and Cumbria NHS Foundation Trust described her as " exceptional" and said she had been nominated for a NHS staff award.

Sowerby, wearing a striped top, cried in the dock as Miss Magill added: " She is deeply, deeply ashamed of what she has done and even drove to Preston for her shopping for fear of bumping into someone who knew her."

Judge Heather Lloyd, sentencing, said she had taken advantage of the trust placed in her and that her offending was "quite systematic and planned."

She said: " You were in a trusted position and in charge of monies due to come into the school for services. You were of good character one would have thought that was an essential requisite in that role or within a school.

"The payments were all for the use of facilities within the school and one could think that was quite clever on your part because no one would ever complain they had not received what they paid for.

"The most aggravating feature is the sustained period of which you repeatedly perpetrated these two types of theft."

The judge accepted Sowerby had a realistic prospect of rehabilitation, and had been able to demonstrate what she was capable of in the time since - but pointed out she did not admit all of her crimes immediately and further investigation had to take place.

She said she had not just used the cash to address financial problems, but had also used it out of greed to "shop for high end luxury goods and at least one trip abroad".

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