I'm a 'hero,' sentenced DPS principal says

Jennifer Chambers, and Holly Fournier

Detroit — A principal, who called himself a “hero” deserving of praise not federal prison for 40 years of work at Detroit Public Schools, will spend a year behind bars for stealing from the cash-strapped district.

Ronald Alexander pleaded with U.S. District Judge Victoria Roberts on Thursday to keep him out of prison and at home where he could care for his ailing mother and remain in the community around Spain Elementary School, where he was called “father and grandfather” for 20 years.

Former Detroit Public Schools principal Ronald Alexander, right,  walks into the federal court building Thursday in downtown Detroit with his mother for his sentencing hearing in the DPS scandal.

“I have given my entire life to this school. ... I have done nothing but serve God, your honor. I don’t deserve it,” Alexander said.

Alexander, who pleaded guilty to taking $23,000 in bribes from a vendor, told Roberts he should be spared from prison because he was the reason that deplorable building conditions at DPS schools were addressed by Mayor Mike Duggan. Alexander also netted a $500,000 donation from “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” for campus updates and staff at Spain after bringing attention to problems there.

“Ronald Alexander is a hero, whether anyone believes it or not,” Alexander said of himself.

Roberts disagreed, quickly dismissing Alexander’s own claims that he was conned into accepting gift cards that he thought were school donations from ex-DPS vendor Norman Shy, who defrauded the district of $2.7 million in a scheme uncovered by the FBI that collared 13 DPS officials in all.

“You are not blameless,” said Roberts, sentencing Alexander to 12 months. “Mr. Shy did not make you commit a crime.”

Rubin: DPS sentences seem light, but scorn is forever

Roberts sentenced four ex-principals caught in the kickback scheme in a span of five hours on Thursday, handing out sentences that ranged from six months to one year in federal prison as punishment for depriving DPS students of $2.7 million in school supplies.

Earlier this week, Robert sentenced four others in the case — Shy and three other DPS officials — who were part of the long-running scheme that required DPS officials to submit fraudulent invoices for Shy and then take bribes and kickbacks to keep quiet. Shy got five years. The others received sentences from 12 months to three years.

On Thursday, all four defendants left federal court after being ordered to report to the Bureau of Prisons at a later date. Several hid under umbrellas and jumped into nearby vehicles to avoid the media.

Inside court, the defendants spoke of feelings of shame and remorse, saying they had dedicated their lives to helping students in Detroit. Many said they spent the stolen money on their own students. Others blamed Shy.

Former Detroit Public Schools principal Tanya Bowman, right, tries to cover herself with an umbrella as she walks out of the federal court building in downtown Detroit after she is sentenced Thursday morning.

The defendants sentenced Thursday received letters of praise from the community for their work at DPS. All earned six-figure salaries, and many had multiple college degrees, Roberts noted.

The four admitted to writing fraudulent school supply invoices for Shy and then accepting kickback and bribes in return. Because they cooperated with the government’s investigation, they all earned lower sentencing guidelines for Roberts to consider.

After hearing pleas of mercy and several excuses from all eight defendants in the case, Roberts said Thursday she took note that every one asked her to focus on their own personal financial losses when issuing a sentence.

“That’s not this court’s focus. ... The court does believe the students and this community and DPS have suffered far more than any defendant to date,” Roberts said.

In every single case, Roberts went lower than sentencing guidelines, saying she took into consideration every person’s character and work in the community. But she went on to say that a loss of freedom was the only punishment that could act as a deterrence to others considering the same path.

“As with all the sentences, the court does believe there is need to impose a prison sentence on this principal. The conduct ... engaged in is serious and the need to deter others outweighs other considerations. All principals are decorated and respected and yet they all committed a crime,” Roberts said.

Gerlma Johnson, center, is escorted by two unidentified people to the federal court for her sentencing this morning.

Also sentenced on Thursday:

■Gerlma Johnson, a former principal at Drew Academy and Earhart Elementary-Middle School, received 12 months in prison for stealing $22,884 in the scheme.

■Tanya Bowman, former principal at Osborn Collegiate Academy of Mathematics, Science and Technology, received nine months in prison for taking $12,500 in the scheme.

■Tia’ Von Moore-Patton, ex-principal of Jerry White Center High School, was sentenced to six months in prison for taking $4,000.

Johnson initially faced 14 to 18 months in prison after cooperating with prosecutors in their investigation. She pleaded guilty to accepting $22,884 in gift cards, cash and money to make purchases for jewelry, men’s and women’s clothing, perfume and psychic readings.

Before sentencing, Johnson’s attorney told Roberts that Johnson had spent thousands on the school and for educator training trips overseas including trips to China and Puerto Rico.

Roberts asked Johnson if she had sought proper reimbursement for the travel and Johnson said she had not because she was unaware of the district’s policy on reimbursement.

“You knew you couldn’t submit fraudulent invoices, you knew that,” Roberts asked. Johnson said yes.

Roberts credited Johnson for turning schools around at DPS and said she had an impressive record at the district.

Still, she was going to be punished and said that any altruistic motives had no place in the case.

“You robbed Peter to pay Peter,” Roberts said of the students. “It was their money.”

The judge again indicated the sentences must send a message.

“Something has to be communicated to educators that any kind of corruption at Detroit Public Schools simply has to stop,” Roberts said.

Johnson finished her hearing Thursday in sobs, as she was comforted by supporters and led from the courtroom.

Bowman pleaded guilty to taking kickbacks from Shy. Records show she used gift cards from Shy to make purchases at Saks Fifth Avenue, Sprint Wireless and Banana Republic.

She told Roberts after she left Osborn for another school that Shy asked to continue the fraud and she refused.

Bowman said she wanted to apologize to everyone in the community but especially her students.

“I have spent my career teaching them to do the right thing, the right choice. ... I failed in that,” Bowman told Roberts before sentencing. “I am truly sorry for what I have done.”

Prosecutors asked for 15 to 19 months for Bowman. Roberts said she went under the guidelines for Bowman because she declined Shy’s offers to continue the scheme.

“You cannot take what belongs to someone else and expect to be lauded for your generosity. ... There may never be an easy or satisfying explanation” for your behavior, Roberts said.

Records show that Moore-Patton spent the money she illegally took at Gaylord Opryland, Wal-Mart and Ruth’s Chris Steak House in Charlotte, N.C.

At sentencing, she told the judge she was a selfless and giving person who was always trying to give to students and staff “to keep morale up.”

“I made a bad decision,” Moore-Patton said.

Her attorney asked the judge for probation, saying Moore-Patton had already suffered from losing her six-figure salary and losing her teaching license as a felon. She is also two years short from earning a pension at DPS.

Five more DPS officials have sentencing dates later this month.