The former athletic director of the Coatesville Area School District was sentenced Thursday to at least two months in prison for stealing $15,000 from the financially struggling school system.
James Donato, who resigned three years ago after school officials discovered racist and sexist text messages about students and staff sent between him and the former superintendent, pleaded guilty to felony theft and conflict of interest charges on June 20. He had been facing 139 misdemeanor and felony charges.
Chester County Judge Thomas G. Gavin sentenced Donato to two to 23 months in prison and five years' probation. Donato, who according to court records moved with his family to a suburb of Raleigh, N.C., must start his sentence by 10 a.m. Monday.
Donato, who was hired in November 2009, stole cash from ticket sales at sporting events and pocketed money that groups paid to use the high school gym, stadium, and track, prosecutors said. They also accused him of spending the money on luxury cars and gambling debts, which his lawyer denies.
"Certainly you had to understand you were causing harm," Gavin told Donato, later adding that " 'sorry' is not enough."
A dozen members of the Coatesville school community, including school board members, parents, former students, and the superintendent appeared in the courtroom at the Chester County Justice Center in West Chester on Thursday. Several held hands and one whispered "yes" when the judge announced the penalty, although they were hoping for the maximum sentence of 18 to 36 months.
Minutes earlier, Donato had addressed the court.
"Finally," he said. "I waited three years to apologize to the school district community and former friends, colleagues and coaches."
He said he made a mistake and acknowledged his actions had hurt people, including students and his own children, who are in sixth and eighth grades. They were not present Thursday.
"I apologize to everyone in this courtroom," he said, turning to face those seated behind him.
Echoing the thoughts of other school district residents, school board member Stuart Deets told the judge Donato had admitted to "only a fraction of the crimes he has committed against our school district," adding that an auditor found at least $35,000 worth of thefts.
"If he took more, the commonwealth should have proven he took more," the judge said.
Deborah Thompson, a school board member, was one of three other representatives of the school district to speak in court. They urged the judge to consider the continuing harm Donato's actions have on the district.
Thompson wiped away tears after the sentencing and said Thursday marked "a new beginning" for the district, although she was a little disappointed with the sentence.
"I wish it was longer," she said. "Our kids would have gotten longer in the same courthouse for the same first offenses."
During Donato's sentencing hearing, Assistant District Attorney Andrea Cardamone stressed that Donato stole money from students and betrayed Coatesville district residents.
The community "has a large segment that don't believe the system works for them," Cardamone said, adding that Donato's actions proved them right.
Donato's attorney, Daniel Bush, had asked the judge to keep his client out of prison. He said Donato took responsibility for stealing $15,000 over a period of 41/2 years, which Donato paid back.
Bush accused the prosecution of vilifying Donato, who he said coached youth sports for 28 years, to try to justify an 18-month investigation.
He said a prison sentence would do nothing but allow the community and prosecutors to "take their pound of flesh."
Like Donato, former Superintendent Richard Como resigned in 2013 after school officials discovered the offensive text messages sent between the two. Their texts, which they sent using school district-issued cellphones, also referenced financial mismanagement. Detectives arrested both men in December 2014, capping an 18-month investigation by the District Attorney's Office.
Como, 70, is accused of diverting funds to pay for high school football rings and of nepotism, among other offenses. His trial is scheduled for December.
The text-message scandal and financial-mismanagement allegations led to shake-ups in leadership and monitoring by federal and state agencies.