The veteran Fairfax County middle school principal who was arrested on embezzlement charges this week allegedly used county funds and federal grant money to pay her son for work that authorities think he never performed, schools officials said Tuesday.
Sonya Swansbrough, 46, who has served with the Fairfax school system for 23 years, was charged Monday with embezzlement and money laundering of about $130,000 as part of an alleged scheme that spanned the past three years. The Woodbridge resident has been principal of Poe Middle School in Annandale since 2006. Her son, Brenton Rusnak, 20, a sophomore studying marketing at Virginia’s Radford University, also was arrested Monday and was charged with receiving stolen property.
Schools officials said that Rusnak began working at Poe in July 2009, doing temporary hourly work in an after-school program and performing clerical duties. Schools spokesman John Torre said that the administration is trying to determine if Swansbrough violated the county's rules against nepotism by hiring her son.
Swansbrough and Rusnak did not return calls seeking comment Tuesday.
County police said the embezzlement dates to at least May 2010, and the alleged scheme was discovered in September when school finance employees found irregularities in Poe’s records. Police said the case is still under investigation, and authorities are auditing Poe’s finances.
Police said that Swansbrough, along with a schools finance specialist who worked with her at Poe from April 2011 to June, took more than $100,000 from accounts used to pay employees. Some of the money, police said, may have come from federal grants meant to help students at the school, where about 65 percent of the student population qualifies for free or reduced-price meals, a federal measure of poverty.
As Poe principal, Swansbrough is paid $127,731 a year, according to the county school system.
Rusnak was a 2011 graduate of Potomac Senior High School in Prince William County, where he played on the varsity football team’s offensive line. During part of the time that Rusnak supposedly did work for the school system, he was in Radford, Va., attending college. In December, Rusnak created an urban clothing line known as UNCIVIL, which markets branded T-shirts, hoodies and other items, according to the company Web site and his Facebook page.
The arrests surprised members of the Poe community.
School Board member Sandy Evans (Mason) said Swansbrough was highly regarded at Poe and was a “key member of the community.” In recent years, Swansbrough was considered for a promotion to assistant superintendent after the retirement of Dan Parris, who had been her supervisor, school officials said.
“She has been terrific, involved and a warm principal,” Evans said. “She knows the families and cares deeply about the kids at the school.”
Swansbrough began working for the school system in 1990 as an art teacher at Glasgow Middle School. She became an assistant principal at Poe in 2003 before taking over the top job three years later. Schools officials said Swansbrough arrived at Poe for work Monday but was arrested off of school property.
The finance specialist, Bethany Speed, 38, allegedly colluded with Swansbrough to falsify time sheets “for personal financial gain” and also was arrested Monday, police said. Speed, of Burke, did not return calls seeking comment.
Speed joined the Fairfax school system in 2001 and since last summer has been an administrative assistant at J.E.B. Stuart High School in Falls Church, earning $68,383. In August 2012, listing more than $270,000 in debt, Speed filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, according to court records and her bankruptcy attorney, Nathan Fisher. Fisher said he does not represent Speed in the current case.
In a letter to Poe families, Assistant Superintendent Douglas Tyson said that Swansbrough and Speed have been suspended from their duties. Tyson said that Poe Assistant Principal Colleen Noone will serve as the school’s chief administrator in the interim.
Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.