A chocolate fundraiser ended more bitterly than sweet this week in a Baltimore County courtroom, where an Essex man pleaded guilty to pocketing thousands of dollars in candy sale proceeds meant to benefit a public middle school.

James Michael Harris, 46, was treasurer for the parent teacher student association affiliated with Stemmers Run Middle School in Essex when he drained the nonprofit’s bank account and spent money raised by the students through a chocolate bar sale. Baltimore County prosecutors said the theft totaled $29,000 and occurred between April 2022 and March 2023.

Authorities charged Harris for having sticky fingers after a parent and a school administrator grew suspicious and confronted him. He admitted to moving the money between PayPal accounts before spending it on himself and online gambling sites such as DraftKings and FanDuel, said prosecutor Adam Lippe.

The state is seeking prison time for Harris but agreed to a plea deal that would suspend sentencing for another six months while he pays restitution. He faces a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. Harris has already paid back $8,000 using funds withdrawn from a retirement account and is working to return more of the sum in coming months.

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The theft dealt a serious blow to the school, which mainly serves children from low-income households. Gone are the after-school snacks for Stemmers Runs’ student-athletes, the seasonal schoolwide dances and the Teacher Appreciation Week gifts — all niceties that the PTSA used to sponsor. The students’ chocolate bar fundraiser alone would have generated $9,000 for the school, said Rosemary Roos-Whitney, president for the PTSA.

“Those kids worked so hard to raise that money and they got nothing for it in return,” Roos-Whitney said Friday. “It’s really disappointing.”

Despite the court proceedings, the PTSA has struggled to bounce back. Parent volunteers quit the nonprofit’s board in the fallout. Roos-Whitney pursued an insurance claim for the PTSA that was denied because the nonprofit had not kept proper financial records. And the group risked losing its charter with the national parent teacher student association affiliate.

Perhaps the lowest blow came with the chocolate bill.

The PTSA couldn’t afford to pay back the $6,815 it owed to World’s Finest Chocolate, the company that supplies the candy for such fundraisers. Schools typically pay a discounted price for the sweets once the fundraiser is complete and keep the profits to benefit their schools.

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Roos-Whitney said she negotiated with the company and provided documentation of the theft. About half of the balance was forgiven, leaving a $3,407.50 debt in collection, she said. (The PTSA is seeking online donations to help cover the debt.)

World’s Finest Chocolate spokesperson Jennifer Taylor declined to comment on outstanding invoices or whether the company had faced similar cases.

“We will always support our school partners and look forward to continuing to help schools fundraise,” Taylor said in an email.

The PTSA operates independently from the Baltimore County school system, meaning the school itself is not on the hook for any debts incurred by the nonprofit, said district spokeswoman Gboyinde Onijala in an email Friday.

Stemmers Run Middle administrators opted against working with the candy fundraising company this year. The school has since welcomed a new principal, who is working to rebuild the parent teacher student association, Onijala said.

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Parents at Stemmers Run are trying their hardest to support students and educators in the midst of the loss, but morale is depleted, Roos-Whitney said. She struggled this year to find parents willing to volunteer for the PTSA. The treasurer position remains unfilled.

“Everyone’s scared,” she said.

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