Heath Vandevender is a coach, teacher and the employee tasked with managing the payroll operations of the state’s largest private school recipient of state-funded vouchers—Trinity Christian School located in Fayetteville.
In a Wake County courthouse this week, Vandevender pleaded guilty to embezzling nearly $400,000 in employee state tax withholdings over an eight year period while serving in his capacity at Trinity Christian.
Vandevender entered into a plea deal struck with the state, whereby he will serve 3 months in prison, pay a $45,000 fine and be placed under supervised probation for five years. He will also serve 100 hours of community service. Vandevender has already repaid the nearly $400,000 owed to the state.
The basketball coach and journalism teacher will still be able to work at Trinity Christian, which is run by his father, Dennis. As a part of the plea deal, Vandevender will likely serve his incarceration at night while teaching, coaching, and—presumably—continuing to manage payroll operations during the day as part of a work release option.
Vandevender was charged earlier this year with embezzling $388,422 between Jan. 1, 2008, and Dec. 31, 2015, from Truth Outreach Center Inc., located in Fayetteville. Trinity Christian School, which has received more than $1 million in publicly-funded school vouchers since 2014, operates under the Truth Outreach Center’s umbrella.
Vandevender’s defense attorney, Trey Fitzhugh, argued that his case was not what the public might typically understand as “embezzlement,” noting that he did not use the funds for personal gain.
“Other than receiving a salary for teaching, he did not receive any profit whatsoever from not paying these bills,” said Fitzhugh.
Prior to that statement, Fitzhugh noted that all four of Vandevender’s children attend or have attended Trinity Christian. It’s not known whether or not Vandevender paid tuition for his childrens’ attendance at the school.
“Yes he’s a teacher, yes he’s a basketball coach, but what he definitely is not is an accountant. But that doesn’t excuse anything that he did.”
But the state’s prosecuting attorney, Ryan Haigh, made note of that fact that for more than a decade (1995-2007), Vandevender demonstrated for the most part a clear understanding of how to comply with remitting employee tax withholdings to the state, which he was tasked with managing during that time. Occasionally payments were late, notices were issued by the state and debts were repaid.
However, beginning in 2008, Vandevender stopped remitting the employee tax withholdings to the NC Department of Revenue altogether. DOR subsequently issued quarterly notices to Trinity Christian informing them of their delinquencies, said Haigh. During this time, the school employed approximately 80-100 people, according to the state’s investigation.
The state found that instead of remitting the employee tax withholdings to the state, Vandevender placed the funds back into the operational accounts of the school.
The defense attorney, Fitzhugh, described a private school that was not flush with cash.
“We all have cliches in our mind about private school,” said Fitzhugh. “Manicured lawns, brick walls and that kind of stuff. Mercedes parked out front. This is not that.”
Instead, Fitzhugh said, Trinity Christian operates out of an old strip mall in Fayetteville that houses a K-12 educational program for largely underprivileged children—and, Fitzhugh said, it’s been highly successful, despite challenging conditions, with an approximately 85 percent college attendance rate.
Fitzhugh described the teaching workforce at Trinity Christian as being tasked with multiple jobs, doubling as repairmen and repairwomen, for example. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Fitzhugh.
Another part of Vandevender’s defense, argued by Fitzhugh, was that Vandevender’s bookkeeping problems were due at least in part to the state’s delays in reimbursing Trinity Christian for the school voucher money that it was owed.
“They were always behind. The government’s behind 30 to 90 days every single time that they get a payment,” said Fitzhugh. “Again, that doesn’t excuse it, but that means that [Trinity Christian] was constantly in a position where they were trying to keep the doors open and keep staff paid and keep students housed and schooled while at the same time trying to fulfill obligations to the government.”
“And the truth of the matter is, Heath got behind on it, and then stuck his head in the sand,” said Fitzhugh.
But Trinity Christian has only been able to take advantage of school vouchers since the program’s inception, in 2014. Vandevender is charged with embezzlement for failure to remit state employee tax withholdings beginning in 2008.
Between 2014 and present, Trinity Christian has received $1,298,640 in taxpayer dollars, according to state records. The private Christian school is the single largest recipient of state tax dollars by way of vouchers, known formally as “Opportunity Scholarships.”
The school voucher program allows low-income families to use up to $4,200 annually in state-funded vouchers at private, mostly religious schools. While proponents of the program say it offers low-income families access to better education alternatives than what may be offered by public schools, critics point to the fact that there is not enough accountability associated with the state-funded program.
Trinity Christian has already run into difficulties complying with the state’s minimal standards for accountability and transparency for school vouchers. Most recently, the school failed to submit an appropriate financial review to the state that is required if you receive more than $300,000 in state voucher funds.
Their financial review also included a note that said the school was opposed to the payment of social security taxes on religious grounds.
In July 2004, the state Revenue Department issued a Certificate of Tax Liability to Trinity Christian School’s parent organization, Truth Outreach, Inc., for failure to pay withholding taxes to the state in the amount of $95,408 between 2001 and 2004.
The U.S. Internal Revenue Service filed a tax lien against Trinity Christian’s parent organization in 1997 for failing to pay $33,285 in federal payroll taxes between 1991 and 1994.
The North Carolina General Assembly just enacted a 2017-19 budget that expands the school voucher program by millions of dollars over the next two years—but lawmakers did not include provisions that would improve accountability and transparency for the program.
Top Photo credit: Greg Flynn