Voters in Twin Buttes elected a woman to the school board Tuesday who was previously convicted in federal court of stealing more than $300,000 from the district while serving as board president.
Melissa Starr, who pleaded guilty in 2007 to embezzlement and theft, received 35 write-in votes in a special election held after citizens sought to recall another board member. A total of 54 people voted in the election, with three people splitting the remaining 19 votes.
The Twin Buttes Elementary School on the Fort Berthold Reservation serves 38 students in kindergarten through eighth grades.
Starr was one of seven Twin Buttes School Board members and district employees who were indicted in 2006 in U.S. District Court on charges related to conspiring to defraud the school of more than $665,000.
The fraud involved a series of false travel vouchers, payroll advances and bonuses. Starr pleaded guilty to embezzling more than any of the other defendants. She was ordered to serve 1½ years in federal prison, serve three years of supervised release and pay more than $309,000 in restitution.
Records from the U.S. Attorney’s Office Financial Litigation Unit show that Starr has paid $20,470 toward restitution, leaving a remaining balance of about $288,000.
Starr said Wednesday that parents encouraged her to run for the school board. She said she knows there will be backlash, but she has learned from her mistakes and is happy to have the support of voters.
“I know in my heart I did wrong. I paid my price, I went to prison. I’m paying restitution way beyond what anybody can imagine,” she said.
Starr said she does not plan to take compensation for serving on the school board and would not participate in any travel.
“I’m just there to make decisions for the school, for the kids of Twin Buttes,” said Starr, who has grandchildren who attend the school.
Felicia Haseleu, who is superintendent and principal, said her reaction to the election result was “disbelief.”
The special election was held Tuesday after citizens petitioned to recall board member Merlein Sorensen, who resigned weeks ahead of the election.
Starr and her relatives were among those who signed the recall petition. Starr was not on the ballot for Tuesday's election, but campaigned as a write-in.
Sorensen said Wednesday she would have accepted someone new coming on the board, but she objects to the election of someone who stole from the school and has yet to pay the money back.
“This is wrong,” Sorensen said. “This is very, very wrong.”
Sorensen said she hopes the state or tribe removes Starr from the board. The election results are scheduled to be certified on Monday.
Haseleu said she was consulting with the school district’s attorney and the attorney for the North Dakota School Boards Association to find out if Starr’s felony conviction affects her eligibility to serve on the board. The attorneys did not return calls seeking comment on Wednesday.