After allegedly walking off with more than $16,000 in student lunch money, an assistant cafeteria manager at Hylton High School has been charged with five counts of embezzling public funds from the school system.

Meredith Claire Caporaletti, 43, of Woodbridge, a school employee since 1984, allegedly stole cash and checks from the Hylton cafeteria on at least five days this month. School officials said Caporaletti was the sole employee responsible for depositing the cafeteria's daily earnings into a local bank account.

According to School Board officials, bags of cash and checks containing all daily sales from the cafeteria were missing. Of Hylton's 2,600 students, approximately half buy a complete $1.50 lunch each day, according to the school system's food services division. In addition, many students buy more items and others purchase individual items daily.

School officials reported accounting discrepancies to Prince William County police last week after noticing that several large deposits had never been made. Records in Prince William County General District Court indicate that the cafeteria's daily earnings were stolen from on Jan. 4 and Jan. 7 and again on Jan. 10.

"Instead of taking the deposits to the bank, she was taking the money," said Dennis Mangan, police spokesman. "When the bank deposits weren't showing up, the school began to wonder where the money was going. Apparently, she was using it to pay personal bills."

Caporaletti could not be reached for comment yesterday.

School accountants noticed the missing deposits within days because all sales at the Hylton cafeteria are tracked by computer from the moment a student pays for lunch to the time the money is deposited. Serena Suthers, the School Board's food services director, said yesterday that the matter was dealt with swiftly.

"We have really excellent records about the amount of money we're taking in and the amount of money that should be in the till everyday," Suthers said. "It is easy to find, and she was the person entrusted with getting it to the bank. It was easy to determine where the problem was."

According to court records, Caporaletti told detectives that she stole money on five separate occasions and used the funds to pay her personal bills. Caporaletti returned five bank deposit bags to police after her arrest, each containing checks she was unable to cash.

Suthers said the stolen money was entirely from student lunch payments and did not include local taxpayer funds. She said the lunch money is usually deposited into the food services operating expense accounts and is used to maintain regular cafeteria services at Hylton. "The money was stolen directly from the program," Suthers said.

Caporaletti was arrested Jan. 14 and was released on $10,000 bond. She has been placed on administrative leave by Prince William County Public Schools.

If convicted, Caporaletti could face two to 10 years in prison for each count of embezzlement, which is a felony. She is scheduled to appear in court Feb. 15.