Mt. Tamalpais School embezzlement case settled

A long-running embezzlement saga came to an end on Aug. 21 when Kate Mecca, the 71-year-old co-founder of Mount Tamalpais School in Mill Valley, pleaded guilty to stealing $1.05 million from the private school she led for decades.

Mount Tamalpais School is a K-8 school located in Mill Valley that charges approximately $31,000 annually in tuition and currently has an enrollment of 201 students.

Redwood senior Devon Cusack, who attended Mount Tamalpais School, summed up the anger felt by some former students.

“There’s no excuse for what she did. I can’t forgive her for that because no one should be forgiven for that,” Cusack said.

As a result of her plea, Kate will spend one year in Marin County Jail and a further three years under mandatory supervision, according to a statement released by Marin County District Attorney Edward Berberian. She will be sentenced by Judge James Chou on Oct. 30. If convicted, she would face up to five years in state prison.

Redwood seniors Blake Bunney, Kali Gibbs and Cusack, all former Mount Tamalpais students, were generally pleased with the education they received at the school. The school actively promoted aspects of moral character in their students, such as courage, honesty and bravery, according to Gibbs.

“It was a very strict school that had a lot of rules,” Gibbs said. “They were very big on honesty and being a good person, and the person running the school wasn’t any of those things.”  

Students also appreciated the close-knit nature of the school community. Cusack felt like students, parents, teachers and faculty all knew each other very well. Gibbs also felt like she knew the faculty well, including Kate. According to Gibbs, Kate was always present and the school was centered around her.

For this reason, news of Kate’s alleged embezzlement was all the more unexpected, according to the three Mount Tamalpais School alumni.

“It was pretty shocking to hear just because I had known her basically my whole life, and I trusted her,” Gibbs said. “I think everyone else there did, and she played such a big role in my life in school. It was really disappointing to hear that such a big figure in my life could do something so wrong.”

Many parents were upset too. According to the Marin Independent Journal, the parents learned of the embezzlement through the school’s Board of Trustees, who reached a civil agreement with Kate. However, some parents were so upset that they complained to the Marin District Attorney’s office about Kate’s actions, which is what initiated the criminal investigation into her activities.

“My parents and I were sort of angry that the tuition we were paying and all the fundraising for the school that was going on was simply going into her back pocket,” Bunney said.

Bunney, Gibbs and Cusack each said their parents were displeased about the misappropriation of school funds.

“My parents were especially upset because it cost a lot of money to go there and the fact that the money we thought was going to the school was just going directly to her made a lot of people really angry,” Gibbs said.

The most recent development is that Kate’s ex-husband, Andy Mecca of Tiburon, recently sued the school for half of his ex-wife’s pension, amounting to approximately $5 million. In the suit, filed in Marin Superior Court on Aug. 1, Andy is claiming breach of contract, elder abuse and damages.

The Meccas divorced in 2014 due to Kate’s marital infidelity, according to Andy Mecca’s lawsuit. It is unclear if the school was a party to the Meccas’ divorce agreement, although the lawsuit states the Meccas “provided a copy of the divorce judgment to the school shortly after it was entered by the court in June 2014.” As part of the divorce, the Meccas agreed to split her pension equally.

Andy’s apparent lack of knowledge of his ex-wife’s actions is questioned by many.

“Although he ran some activities at the school, I don’t think that he is deserving of the money, considering there is no way he was unaware of the embezzlement,” Bunney said.

Since he often participated in school events and was married to Kate for approximately 40 years, many students are skeptical of whether he was indeed unaware of her actions.

“For him to not know [about the embezzlement] is really surprising,” Gibbs said. “I don’t think [the lawsuit] is the right thing to do given that the school is trying really hard to recover from this, and it adds stress they don’t need.”

Kate co-founded the school in 1976. Her husband served on the Board of Trustees for 40 years and as the Interim Head of School for the 2015-16 school year after his wife’s retirement. Kate’s fraudulent actions came to light shortly after her retirement. As a result of the Board of Trustees’ review of the school’s finances after her departure, a school bank account opened in Kate’s name in 1988 was uncovered, according to The Ark newspaper.

Per the affidavit, it was then discovered that Kate had directed the school’s office manager to deposit some checks made out to the school into this bank account, known as the “Mount Tamalpais School Director’s Office Account.” Kate closed the bank account the same month she retired.

The Ark further indicates that the Board of Trustees hired a forensic investigator who determined Kate had allegedly used $1,054,042 of school funds for personal expenses between 2008 and 2015. Whether other funds were diverted before 2008 remains unknown since earlier bank statements were no longer available.

Once she was presented with the evidence, Kate agreed to a civil settlement that included repaying $650,000 and forfeiture of her annual $300,000 pension, according to the Marin Independent Journal.

However, as a result of the parental complaints, the criminal investigation was instigated by the Marin County District Attorney’s office. On April 4, after a 10-month investigation, Kate was arrested in Florida, where she currently lives, on suspicion of being a felony fugitive from justice. She was subsequently released on $150,000 bail and charged with grand theft and embezzlement, according to the arrest warrant affidavit.

Regarding Andy’s recent lawsuit, Michelle Sarti, president of the Mount Tamalpais School Board of Trustees, sent a letter to the school community on Aug. 9 in which she described his suit as baseless. She also included a statement from the current Head of School, Andrew Davis, who stated, “We are deeply disappointed that Mr. Mecca has taken this step in light of the harm caused by his then-wife’s substantial diversion of school assets that is currently subject to criminal prosecution.” Davis further indicated that “the school intends to vigorously defend against Mr. Mecca’s complaint.”

The three alumni students hope the school can learn and grow in the future as a result of the scandal.

“I hope that the new administration and the Mount Tamalpais School community can regain the trust they once shared,” Bunney said.

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