Less than a week after a jury cleared her of any criminal wrongdoing, a Jupiter Farms Elementary teacher was fired for collecting more than $24,000 in coaching stipends that district investigators say she didn't earn while she was the athletic director at Olympic Heights High School in Boca Raton.
Cindy Lucia, 61, was arrested in the summer of 2021 after school police investigators found she collected athletic stipends for sports she wasn't coaching, grounds work she didn't complete and for managing teams that Olympic Heights High didn't even have.
Investigators say that Lucia misallocated $24,836 from the fall of 2016 and the fall of 2019, when she was the school's athletic director and softball coach.
But her attorney said, both in court and in front of the school board last week, that Lucia's extra supplements were approved by Olympic Heights' principal at the time, David Clark, in a common practice meant to pay school staffers for extra work they do.
"I know you all realize the tremendous responsibilities and numerous extra hours that an athletic director works, with many of those hours being uncompensated," criminal defense attorney Michael Salnick wrote to the board. "Over the years, Mr. Clark had advised Ms. Lucia that she would be paid with supplements from other areas where he could in order to compensate her for the amount of time she was putting into her job."
But Clark told investigators he never discussed the supplements with Lucia.
In an uncharacteristically split vote, the school board voted four to three to fire Lucia.
She has been placed on a 15-day unpaid suspension that began Sept. 22. During that time, she can appeal the board's action. If she does not appeal, the termination becomes permanent Oct. 18.
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What happened to $24K in coaching supplements at Olympic Heights High?
Lucia's troubles began in March 2019, when Olympic Heights' new principal Kelly Burke reported Lucia to the school district's inspector general. Her concerns about potential theft by Lucia were referred to the district's police department, which opened an investigation.
Investigators found that while Lucia was the school's athletic director and the varsity softball coach, she was getting paid a yearly athletic trainer supplement for $562 even though she was not an athletic trainer.
She was also being paid to coach sports in which she wasn't involved: Lucia received $3,275 each year for being the head coach of the girls' JV wrestling team and a $1,925 supplement for being the assistant coach to the boys' tennis team. She was not a coach for either sport.
According to the inspector general, Lucia also received payments for coaching sports that didn't exist. In December 2016 and 2018, she was paid $2,500 for coaching a nonexistent junior varsity girls' swimming team.
Interviews with Olympic Heights staff revealed that it's a relatively common practice for school staff to get a coaching supplement for helping a team but not being its coach.
Frank D'Annunzio, an assistant principal at the school, told investigators that staff members who mark a field for a game or help student athletes study can be compensated using a coaching supplement, which the athletic director approves.
But investigators said Lucia's supplements went beyond that. They found that Lucia was getting the coaching supplements instead of the coaches who were putting in the work.
That was disturbing to some school board members.
"There were people that were entitled to the money and didn't get it because it was already taken by the athletic director," Board Chair Frank Barbieri said before voting. "That is stealing from another employee and she doesn't deserve to keep her job if she did that."
Here's a breakdown of the money she's accused of misappropriating:
Why didn't a jury convict?
While some school board members considered Lucia's termination an open-and-shut case, it was complicated by a jury's finding earlier this month that she was not guilty of grand theft and official misuse.
Salnick made the case to the jury that the supplement system at Olympic Heights and other schools is "fluid" and that several other district employees receive supplements reserved for duties they didn't perform.
Lucia said that she agreed to be the school's athletics and activities director only because Clark said she could put her name down for three coaching supplements that would make up for the fact that the district did not offer supplements for overseeing activities.
She said the two jobs were nearly equal in the amount of work they required.
But Clark, who retired form the principalship in 2018, told school police he had no memory of this agreement. His secretary was responsible for inputting supplement information into the district's software for payment after he approved it.
Salnick said he found that Clark's arrangement, whether he remembered or not, is replicated elsewhere in the district.
"We found some fifteen other school board employees who, for example, received sixth period teaching supplements and didn't teach any classes, people relieved from their positions only to receive full supplements, employees receiving coaching supplements for other duties or gender equity supplements as a coach but not coaching," Salnick wrote.
"Essentially, many people were paid from different budgets yet Ms. Lucia is called a thief for doing so," he said.
That stuck with at least three school board members, who have called for a comprehensive review across the district of how coaching supplements are assigned and collected.
"It's quite conceivable that someone could be found not guilty with the higher burden of proof in the criminal justice system but found to have committed whatever offense in our personnel system," school board member Dr. Debra Robinson said. "What bothers me is what appears to be a lot of inconsistency across the district in terms of who gets supplements and how."
School board members question 'selective enforcement'
Lucia, who worked as the exceptional student education coordinator at Jupiter Farms after her removal from Olympic Heights, was well-represented by colleagues, friends and former students on the night she was fired by the district.
"I challenge you to find a teacher who loves the profession more than coach Lucia," said Mary Kimberly, a former Olympic Heights student who is now a teacher. "Isn't that the type of educator you pray for in our schools?"
Kimberly shared memories of Lucia pushing her to be her best as a softball player and buying her Christmas presents and graduation gifts when her family could not afford them.
While three board members supported a motion to postpone a vote on Lucia's termination until their next meeting so they could get more information, that motion ultimately failed.
Robinson, Marcia Andrews and Karen Brill voted against Lucia's termination.
"I need some assurance that this is not selective enforcement, because the principal signed off on the supplements and I'm not convinced that it doesn't happen at other schools," Brill said.
They were overruled.
This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: Former PBC athletic director fired for taking $24K from district