By Kevin Kelley
On Monday morning, Cuyahoga County Pleas Court Judge Joan Synenberg asked Kevin Liptrap the question that hundreds of students, teachers, administrators and the whole community had wanted to know for more than a year: Why?
The former Fairview High School and Lewis F. Mayer Middle School principal was in court to be sentenced for embezzling more than $63,000 in school funds. He had entered a guilty plea to a charge of theft in office last month.
“I made bad decisions that I should not have made,” Liptrap answered the judge. “I thought solely of myself — I was thinking of myself and not thinking of the children and of the community.”
Liptrap told the judge he used the money he stole for personal expenses, such as bills and to address financial troubles, referring to his bankruptcy filing.
“I made the bad decisions of a desperate man that was wrong,” he said.
He did not mention the $4,355 of school money the state auditor’s office said he spent at an Avon Lake golf course, claiming the purchases were for the high school golf team.
Synenberg called Liptrap a hypocrite for preaching certain values to kids and doing the complete opposite.
The judge acknowledged that the likelihood of a repeat offense by Liptrap was minimal. She noted a probation risk assessment set the likelihood at zero, something the judge said she had never seen before. The report said Liptrap does not have a drug or alcohol problem, the judge noted.
But Synenberg called Liptrap’s crime serious because of his betrayal of the public and the students. She cited the need to deter similar crimes while announcing Liptrap’s sentence. She noted that Liptrap’s embezzling was not a one-time mistake but instead took place over a four-year period.
“In these circumstances, there needs to be a message sent,” the judge said.
She sentenced him to 90 days in Oriana House, a halfway house on East 55th Street in Cleveland. The halfway house stint is a condition of avoiding prison and instead receiving only five years of probation.
The former principal must serve 500 hours of community service, but neither the service nor court-required employment may involve children or financial matters, the judge ordered. Synenberge will review the status of his case in about 80 days.
Synenberg warned Liptrap that a three-year prison sentence hangs over his head if he violates any aspect of his supervision.
Liptrap must also repay the district the $63,000 he stole, plus the $58,000 cost of a state audit that investigated his embezzlements and $4,000 in district legal costs. Most of that will come from his state retirement account; another $6,976 comes from his unused vacation credit.
Fairview Park City School District Treasurer Ryan Ghizzoni told the court that the impact of Liptrap’s crime went beyond the amount of money he stole and caused a “deep emotional and mental toll” on the students and community.
“After learning of his crimes, many students required counseling, and the student body that so readily bought into Mr. Liptrap’s charade was absolutely devastated,” Ghizzoni said. “Mr. Liptrap’s actions negatively affected the working relationship between the administration and staff at the high school and middle school which is still in the process of being repaired today. The damage that he has caused will likely be felt for years to come.”
The treasurer also called Liptrap a “con artist” who should never be allowed to work with children again.
School board President Joe Shucofsky told the court that Liptrap really did have a gifted ability to connect with students.
“A skill and aptitude for knowing how to win the trust and loyalty and to motivate young students, both troubled and gifted alike,” Shucofsky said of Liptrap’s knack. “And he squandered that gift for his own petty gain, utilizing his special trust relationship with students, their parents and teachers in order to do so, oblivious to the harm he would, and did, cause to children in the process.”
But Liptrap was not what he appeared to be, the school board president said.
“He emotionally manipulated students, teachers and administrators to win their trust and, at the same time, fostered mistrust amongst those very administrators and teachers so that they would be less likely to talk to each other and figure out what he was doing,” Shucofsky said.
Superintendent Brion Deitsch had a scheduling conflict and did not attend the sentencing hearing.
Liptrap’s attorney, Gary Vick, described Liptrap as a man who has lost everything. His two older children and wife no longer speak to him, Vick said.
Vick said he believes his client truly did care about the students he oversaw as principal.
While being scolded by Synenberg, Liptrap sat stonefaced. When he addressed the court, it was in a soft but steady and unemotional voice. The only time Liptrap displayed any emotion was when his attorney described how his crimes damaged his relationships with his family. He twitched a bit and his faced reddened before he twice wiped away tears.
“I am a man that made multiple, multiple mistakes,” Liptrap said when first permitted to address the court. “I preached the three R’s — respect, responsibility, do the right thing — and I did not practice what I preached. I apologize to the students that I’ve harmed. I apologize to the community that I’ve harmed, that embraced me, that took me in as one of their own.”
Liptrap asked for forgiveness from the community and the school board. He congratulated the school district for “going on with the programs that we put in that got them to an excellent report card,” he said, referring to the ranking on the Ohio Department of Education’s district report card.
At the end of the hearing, Liptrap was remanded into the custody of the county jail to await transfer to the halfway house.