Avon charter school founder pleads guilty to theft | VailDaily.com

Avon charter school founder pleads guilty to theft

Matt Terrell
Vail, CO Colorado
Special to the DailyBill Hammer

EAGLE, Colorado ” Bill Hammer, founder of Stone Creek School, pleaded guilty Monday to stealing thousands of dollars from the school, which since opening in 2006 has been struggling to pull itself out of a deep financial hole.

Hammer stole more than $68,000 from Stone Creek, said Mark Hurlbert, Eagle County District Attorney. Investigators found checks written directly from Stone Creek’s account deposited in Hammer’s personal business accounts for Noel, a Christmas shop he owned in Beaver Creek, and the Oregon Country Tree Farm, a business in Oregon.

Hammer also used Stone Creek money to pay back rent he owed to Vail Resorts for his shop in Beaver Creek, Hurlbert said.

Hammer was arrested in July 2007 in Jefferson County. He faces 4 to 12 years in prison, but could also receive probation, for theft over $15,000, a third degree felony. He will be sentenced in June. Hammer will also have to pay back money he stole ” the exact amount will be determined at a hearing, Hurlbert said.

The news is upsetting to parents, who for months have been helping the Avon charter school pay a long list of debts.

In its first year, the school overestimated its enrollment numbers, which means it received more state funding per student than it should have and had to pay the state back. More debt came from leftover building expenses, teacher salaries and about $400,000 in grants and fundraising that were budgeted for but never came in.

While debt is normal for a brand new school, it became obvious at the beginning of 2007 that the school’s money had been mismanaged, and an even bigger worry was that something illegal had happened, school leaders have said.

“None of us wanted to believe it was a actually a crime that was committed,” said Kevin Kromer, president of Stone Creek’s board of directors. “He (Hammer) put a lot of his life and time into it, and ultimately, he did get the school up and running. So it’s unfortunate to have this outcome.”

Avon police were approached by newly elected members of the Stone Creek Board of Directors in February 2007 who were concerned about discrepancies they discovered in the school’s financial records, which were being managed by Hammer.

Kevin Randel, who was treasurer at the time, said the financial records were scattered, incomplete and didn’t quite add up. They found a slew of unaccounted for funds ” checks written without matching receipts or invoices adding up to more than $68,000.

Hammer had stepped down as president of the board of directors, and at a February meeting, he was voted off the board entirely after being accused of mismanaging the school’s money.

The fact that Stone Creek was just starting and owed a lot of money to a lot of people, and that Hammer didn’t keep good financial records, made it difficult for school leaders and investigators to determine where the money really went, school leaders have said.

“It hurt us, and it hurt us deeply, and every family at the school was affected by his actions,” Randel said.

The school is doing much better financially and was able to pay back a substantial amount of its debt this school year, Kromer said.

The next big hurdle will be finding a permanent home for the school instead of the modular trailers they now use next to Home Depot.

Staff Writer Matt Terrell can be reached at 748-2955 or mterrell@vaildaily.com.

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