AURORA, Colo. (KDVR) — Nearly two years after he retired while under investigation, a former high school principal and his secretary could soon be arrested on accusations of embezzling more than $100,000 from Gateway High School in Aurora.
The Problem Solvers have learned that 57-year-old Ronald Fay could soon face charges of embezzlement, theft and destruction of evidence. His long-time school secretary and alleged accomplice, 62-year-old Jill Watkins, could be arrested on counts of embezzlement and theft.
Police in Aurora say the charges relate to conduct from October 2019 to July 2021, a two-year period when Fay served as principal at the academically struggling high school.
Anonymous tip, deleted evidence, funneled cash
According to a 338-page police report obtained by the Problem Solvers, Watkins had been Fay’s loyal school secretary and bookkeeper since his time at Rangeview High School and followed him over to Gateway High School in the summer of 2019.
On June 28, 2021, Aurora Public Schools received an anonymous tip that Fay and Watkins had been embezzling money from the school using a secret bank account.
Auditors hired by the school district conducted a surprise inspection at Gateway High School on July 21, 2021. Two days later, Fay and Watkins were placed on leave.
A week later, on July 30, 2021, Fay submitted his resignation, writing, “I have decided it is time for me to retire, effective immediately,” adding he would return his “keys, laptop and badge.”
But Fay never explained why he apparently erased everything off his laptop and district-issued cell phone, but as investigators wrote, “The digital forensics team believed the act was an intentional act to destroy or delete all the data off the devices.”
Auditors would discover that Fay and Watkins were allegedly redirecting money from school fundraising accounts and school district funds into an authorized “offshore” account with Alpine Bank in the Denver Tech Center neighborhood, outside the school district boundaries.
Slush fund spent on designer clothes, trips, debt
In their lengthy report, auditors determined that the money was used for personal spending and staff gifts, including $6,000 in Tory Burch purses and designer jackets. Another $2,540 was used to cover Fay’s Aurora Rotary Club membership and to purchase a $500 drone for Regis High School, where Fay’s wife worked.
In addition, detectives wrote that funds were misappropriated for a retirement dinner, staff holiday parties, a staff baby shower and out-of-state golf trips for Ronald Fay and some of his closest staffers, and even for his driver’s license renewal.
Watkins was believed to have spent thousands of dollars on personal expenditures to places like Bath and Body Works, Ulta, Old Navy, Barnes and Noble, Target, WellHaven Pet Health, a restaurant in Texas, her tenant’s internet bill and $1,884 to a debt collection company.
“That was something that was supposed to not go to them. It’s not about them. It’s about these kids,” said Matthew Gallegos, one of the listed victims in the police report.
Gallegos is a local real estate agent who donated $1,000 to the #GoTogether Fund, meant to raise funds to support Gateway Athletics during COVID-19.
Gallegos would later learn from police that his money, like so many Gateway donations, never went to the students.
Instead, detectives said Watkins and Fay embezzled the funds for whatever they saw fit, including an indoor golf facility with a putting green and a big screen simulator in what used to be an art building. The school also spent $14,543 to pay for two new golf carts that were customized for Gateway.
“I mean, he stole people’s money, and not just stole people’s money — it’s like you took money out of kids’ hands that could have benefited,” said Gallegos, who added he believed both Fay and Watkins should serve jail time if convicted.
Money meant for students ‘would just disappear’
“Personal nightmare” is how Micha Richie described working under Ronald Fay for the two years Fay was the principal at Gateway High School.
Richie was an English teacher at Gateway and left the school earlier this year.
“We would have outside organizations donate substantial amounts of money and it would just disappear. Would not get to the students at all,” Richie said. “I once asked him for a book set, and I was denied. Just flat out just, no, we’re not buying new books. Which is really odd, seeing how we’re a high school.”
Richie said he always suspected Fay was engaged in financial crimes and isn’t surprised the Aurora Police Department and district auditors have now accused Fay of embezzling more than $100,000.
“I know there were several students who came to me and complained about the fact that they had no money for events, and yet there’s new football equipment or there’s a new golf simulator where there used to be an art center,” Richie said.
Investigators believe Fay took money from fundraisers, school booster clubs and, in one case, said $60,000 came from a staff position Fay never filled.
The funds were supposed to be for a student engagement advocate for athletes at Gateway, but instead, police and auditors say it essentially became a slush fund for whatever Fay wanted, including the indoor golf facility and screen simulator.
Another school administrator named in report
According to the Aurora Public Schools auditor’s report, Fay received permission from then-Chief Academic Officer Andre Wright to transfer the $60,000 allocated for a staff member into a separate fund that Fay controlled.
Wright denied that when reached by the Problem Solvers, writing, “I approved the transfer to support the Student Engagement Advocate position. Rob what happens after that is every division has a budget tech that then connects with schools, divisions, and Finance to implement the transfer. The Division Head does not get involved in line item transfers.”
Though again, the police report, which includes the auditor’s notes, seemed to suggest it was Wright who allowed the funds to be moved around into a Ronald Fay-orchestrated account.
In a series of emails to the Problem Solvers, Wright said he “did not personally transfer anything to Gateway. Mr. Wright approved the transfer. Any movement, activity or transactions at the school level were not supervised by Andre Wright. Any suspicious activity would have been a function of Finance and Human Resources.”
Wright was vague in his emails but seemed to suggest someone was out to make him a scapegoat for Fay’s alleged misdeeds, writing the Problem Solvers, “We know who is behind it and how this is a defamation of character.”
Rangeview High linked to the case
The criminal allegations against Fay and Watkins only related to their time at Gateway High School. But in their report, auditors said they “learned of a similar ‘external account’ and allegations of similar inappropriate spending” that took place at Rangeview High School when Fay was the principal from July 2012 to June 2019.
Auditors wrote, “It should be noted that this does not appear to be the first time this has occurred. It is alleged that both Fay and Watkins did something similar while they worked together at Rangeview HS.”
“Oh, 100%,” said Cary Smith a former teacher under Ronald Fay at Rangeview High School. “This isn’t, like, new behavior. This (Gateway) was just where he got caught.”
Smith now teaches out of state in the Midwest but said money from fundraisers often went missing at Rangeview High School.
“Money wasn’t an object for certain items, but yet we couldn’t get books,” complained Smith, who added, “There’s no system in place to check these principals. You know that, right? These principals could go in and literally do anything.”
According to the police report obtained by FOX31, doing “anything” included Dr. Fay bringing favorite staff members from Rangeview High School to Gateway, but instead of labeling them as teachers, they were “coordinators of climate and culture,” eight of them, who all fell into a higher salary band as a result of their job classification.
“If you want to look at those eight people, show me one over the age of 45,” said Smith, who felt Fay was biased against older teachers, especially females.
When auditors questioned the eight coordinators of climate and culture, “None of the individuals could clearly explain the position,” according to their report.
“That job is: Ron likes you,” is how Smith described it.
‘He’s going to reap what he sowed’
The Problem Solvers reached out to nearly 10 teachers who worked under Ronald Fay, and all were critical of him, but most feared job retaliation if they spoke about him on the record.
Paula Elliott was an exception, because she retired in 2014 after working for Fay at Rangeview High School. She told the Problem Solvers that Ray “is the exact reason I don’t teach anymore … The way I look at it is it took all these years, but karma, they finally found out what he’s doing. And I’m just glad it’s finally come to a head and he’s going to reap what he sowed.”
Smith added, “What’s so upsetting is how many teachers were treated so poorly, who had their careers destroyed. Countless complaints. And it’s money that ultimately brought him down.”
FOX31 was told by several teachers that numerous complaints were made to Aurora Public Schools over the years concerning Fay’s ethical behavior, but when the Problem Solvers asked for the number of complaints filed, a district spokesman responded the district had “no responsive records.”
Grade-changing allegations made against principal
Something the district was aware of was complaints of grade-changing, made at the behest of Fay, according to numerous former and current teachers reached by FOX31.
A memo dated Oct. 22, 2020, to the district’s then chief academic officer — Andre Wright, who is now one of three candidates for superintendent — stated that in Fay’s first year as principal at Gateway High School from 2019-2020, “Gateway High School recorded 484 transcript grade changes … The transcript grade changes are 53% higher than any other APS High School.”
The same memo reads, “Gateway High School recorded 41 unauthorized course credit type/title changes on student transcripts. Ex: Changing an elective credit to a core credit to enable a student to meet graduation or on-track requirements.”
The memo obtained through a public records request went on to state, “Further investigation is warranted,” but it’s unclear if the district in fact did any further investigation.
The lengthy police report includes a segment about allegations of grade changing that were supposed to be investigated by the previous district registrar, Katrina Dainko.
The report suggests the investigation didn’t dig too deep, because “Ms. Dainko stated she felt pressure from Mr. Wright to not follow up further on the grade changes.”
In email correspondence with the Problem Solvers, Wright wrote that Dainko “wasn’t pressured to do anything…This was a TEAM of people who looked into this not just me! A team of qualified individuals including the Director of Human Resources (I think she would know if anyone was pressured).”
The memo mentioned staff interviews where an English teacher and coach “resigned from Gateway High School after being pressured to change a student’s grade from 3 years prior. ‘Teacher’ refused to comply and stated he was targeted by administration after refusing to sign off on the student grade change. The information was sent in the email (including links and interview summaries) to you (Andre Wright) on June 14, 2020.”
In another interview, a freshman academy counselor said “he was pressured into changing grades for students without documentation. After experiencing what he described as extreme pressure, ‘Counselor’ was fired from his position at the end of the 2019-2020 school year. The information was sent in the email (including links and interview summaries) to you (Andre Wright) on June 14, 2020.”
When the Problem Solvers asked Wright if he investigated further, he responded by email, “I provided the results of the investigation to the Superintendent….Have you asked the former Superintendent what did he direct as a result of what he and the others were provided? Especially since he is the ‘only’ person that can hire and fire a Principal.”
Teachers recall forced grade changes
Aurora Public Schools announced earlier this year that Superintendent Rico Munn would be leaving the district at the end of this school year, and his role at the semester break had become a transitional role to help the interim superintendent.
Neither the Aurora Public Schools communications team nor the school board has responded to questions about Munn’s role in the scandal and what, if any, action he took against Fay related to accusations of grade-fixing and poor treatment of teachers.
“I saw kids just like other teachers did, that walked across the (graduation) stage that I know that did not pass my class, and it was a requirement to graduate,” retired teacher Paula Elliot said.
Elliott told the Problem Solvers that when she confronted Fay about grade-changing at Rangeview High School, he made sure her contract at the school was not renewed after more than 20 years of teaching.
“I loved my career. I loved teaching. It was what I was meant to do. And to have someone like that come in and really get rid of my job, because I question one of the ways that he was inflating the graduation rate,” Elliot said.
When FOX31 asked the district what it did with the information about suspicious grade-changing, the district never responded and ignored numerous follow-up questions from the Problem Solvers.
Gateway’s graduation rates were under supervision
When the Problem Solvers asked former Rangeview teacher Cary Smith if Ronald Fay ever pressured her to change student grades, she replied, “Absolutely.”
She said that if teachers didn’t agree, Fay would go into the computer system and make sure it was done anyway.
“He had a meeting with me and said, ‘I changed these senior grades because I think they deserve a D.’ These were students who did not come to class. These were students that had multiple assignments missing. And I could not believe that I was told in this meeting that not only did he change it, but that there was nothing I could do about it,” Smith said.
Smith said she and other teachers made multiple complaints to the district that went nowhere.
“We all knew that he changed senior grades to boost graduation rates. We all knew that if he felt that you spoke out of line or if you were in disagreement with him, that your life was going to become very uncomfortable. I don’t think that man has an ethical compass at all.”
“Quite frankly, I feel that Ron Fay was so twisted, so corrupt, he could eat soup with a corkscrew,” said Micha Richie, the former English teacher at Gateway High School.
Richie said he “absolutely refused” to change student grades but said he was aware grades were changed anyway, and students were given a bad life lesson as a result.
“They know they didn’t do their work. They know they shouldn’t be passing. And I think it gives them the wrong idea of, hey, I can do nothing and still get away with it. Cool,” Richie said.
Gateway High School was under state supervision because of low graduation rates.
According to the Colorado Department of Education, Gateway’s graduation rate in 2019 was 64%. In 2020, the first under Principal Ronald Fay, Gateway’s graduation rate climbed to 73%, but multiple teachers told FOX31 it was only because Fay was putting his thumb on the grade scale.
“He was the golden child. He came from — what was it? Rangeview — and fixed that school. He wanted to come to Gateway and fix that school. And he, the way he fixes things, is he lies and cheats,” Richie said.
“This happened all the time. There were multiple complaints. And yet the system did nothing about it. In fact, they ignored it because the numbers looked good,” said Cary Smith, the former Rangeview teacher.
Aurora Public Schools releases statement
Again, Aurora Public Schools refused to answer basic questions from FOX31 but released this statement:
As shared in the Aurora Police Department report, Aurora Public Schools was the reporting party and provided full investigation findings to detectives. After learning about the allegations of fiscal mismanagement at Gateway High School, we immediately launched an internal investigation. We also hired an outside accounting firm to conduct a forensic investigation. We proactively contacted the Aurora Police Department which subsequently launched its own investigation.
We have multiple policies and protocols in place to ensure that funding is used appropriately to serve Aurora Public Schools students. We do not tolerate misconduct and hold staff to high standards. We work to fully investigate complaints and concerns. In this case, the actions of the two former employees are appalling. We remain committed to upholding high standards for all employees.Aurora Public Schools
The Problem Solvers also reached out to every member of the Aurora Public Schools Board of Education, but they declined to comment.
The Aurora Education Association, which is the teacher’s union for the district, initially told FOX31 it would review its archives to see how many teachers filed complaints with the district. But then the union stopped responding to messages from the Problem Solvers.
The district’s own audit said that Wright — the chief academic officer under Fay and a current candidate for superintendent — declined to be interviewed and stopped returning phone messages. When the Problem Solvers asked Wright why he didn’t sit down with the auditor, he said in an email, “The district auditor said he was satisfied with what I provided as I was no longer employed by the district.”
FOX31 sent an email to the auditor and left a phone message asking if what Wright shared was true, but the Problem Solvers have so far not received a response from the district’s auditor.
FOX31 confirmed the 18th Judicial District Attorney’s Office Economic Crime Unit is currently reviewing the case file to determine whether charges against Fay and Watkins are warranted.
FOX31 reached out to both Fay and Watkins, including phone calls and visits to their homes. Neither responded.