For an educator who once led the opening of a large east metro high school with poise and exuberance, Thursday’s criminal sentencing was a humble conclusion to those upbeat days.
Aaron Harper, 42, stood before a judge in a Washington County courtroom to express remorse for stealing public money when he was the first principal at East Ridge High School in Woodbury, which opened in 2009.
“I find myself embarrassed to be in this position,” Harper said. “I really look forward to making amends.”
District Judge B. William Ekstrum sentenced Harper to 240 hours of community service on a felony charge of theft by swindle. He also ordered him to pay $7,500 in restitution to the South Washington County school district, spend five years on probation, and to notify any employer of his criminal history.
“You have to be transparent, you have to tell them, and if that means you don’t get the job, so be it,” the judge told Harper.
His attorney, Peter Wold, said after the hearing that Harper remains unemployed.
“His dream was to be an educator and he’s probably blown it,” Wold said. Harper has apologized to staff members at the school, Wold said.
Prosecutor Kevin Mueller asked the judge to sentence Harper to 60 days in the county jail, without work release, for what Mueller said was a significant violation of the public trust.
When school staff objected to Harper’s misuse of school funds he gave them “the look,” meaning, “stop talking about it,” Mueller said.
“He wanted to be Santa. That’s absolutely not appropriate to do on the taxpayers’ dime,” he said.
Ekstrum told Harper, “You did break this trust.” But the judge did not order him to jail. “I think it’s more important for you to do the community service,” Ekstrum said.
Harper resigned abruptly in November 2014 from his principal’s job amid a police investigation. He pleaded guilty May 8 to a single count of stealing school funds for his personal use from May 2013 through July 2014.
He acknowledged using a school purchasing card to buy softball equipment for youth teams unrelated to the school, and also taking money from a school “slush fund” for personal use.