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Scam within a scam: Feds say ex-North Side principal stole money employees helped her trick out of CPS

Sarah Jackson Abedelal allegedly said the money was going to legitimate school expenses, but the feds say she used it to pay her own bills, including her mortgage.

Chicago Public Schools sign on a revolving door
The feds accused Sarah Jackson Abedelal, former principal at Brennemann Elementary School, of pocketing as much as $200,000 from an overtime scheme.
Sun-Times file

The alleged yearslong scam at the North Side elementary school appeared to have noble intentions — squeezing extra money out of the Chicago Public Schools to pay for legitimate classroom expenses.

But the feds say as much as $200,000 really went elsewhere — including to pay the mortgage on the home of then-Brennemann Elementary School Principal Sarah Jackson Abedelal.

Now the onetime school principal has been hit with 10 counts of wire fraud in a new federal indictment. Abedelal pleaded not guilty through her lawyer during an afternoon court appearance. Prosecutors said she was arrested at 6 a.m. Wednesday.

Abedelal’s lawyer, Steven Decker, later described his client in an email as “a well-respected principal and educator.”

“If true, these charges represent a betrayal of trust unbecoming of any public servant, especially those who serve students and families,” CPS said in its own statement. “This type of conduct has no place at Chicago Public Schools.”

The indictment only levels criminal charges against Abedelal, and it does not allege that anyone else knew where the money was going.

However, it does allege that three business managers would prepare bogus overtime sheets at the direction of Abedelal and an assistant principal, lying about “substantial amounts of overtime hours” they claimed school employees had worked. It also alleges Abedelal, the assistant principal and the business managers told school employees to sign the sheets, certifying that they had worked those hours.

Abedelal allegedly told school employees to withdraw their unearned overtime money — not including taxes — and deliver the cash directly to her or the assistant principal. Abedelal allegedly met with employees in her office, or even in classrooms, to collect the money.

Abedelal falsely told them the money would “be used to pay other legitimate expenses incurred by Brennemann School,” according to the indictment.

The scam allegedly lasted from 2012 to 2019, which means it would have taken place before, during and after the public kickback scandal that led to the conviction and imprisonment of former CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett.

Abedelal’s tenure at the school during that time also generated protests in 2014 from parents who accused her of an “iron fist” approach to discipline.

To cover her tracks during the scam alleged in Wednesday’s indictment, Abedelal used the cash from her employees to buy money orders, which she then used to pay personal expenses, including her mortgage, according to the document. The feds say she collected at least $200,000 in CPS money to which she was not entitled.