A Desert Hot Springs High School clerk accused of taking almost $350,000 from the school over the course of 16 years pleaded not guilty to an embezzlement charge Friday.

Deneen Kuhlman, 47, of Desert Hot Springs, is accused of taking $346,731.77 while working as a financial clerk at the campus.

The missing funds were discovered in December, when the Palm Springs Unified School District began investigating the discrepancy. It triggered an email from Kuhlman to Desert Hot Springs High Principal George Bullis, in which she allegedly admitted taking the money “due to financial `woes’ at home,” an arrest warrant declaration alleges.

An apparently guilt-ridden Kuhlman explained to Bullis, and later to Desert Hot Springs police, that when money came in, she would keep some of it for herself and deposit only part of the funds into the bank, the declaration states.

When the bank statements came in, she would adjust the documents before sending them on to the school district, using a word document on her work computer to falsify the statements.

According to Kuhlman, the embezzlement began when an unknown person took up to $50,000 from the school’s unlocked safe. For unknown reasons, Kuhlman said she forged documents to cover up that person’s theft, and after finding it relatively easy to conceal the missing funds, decided to take “a couple hundred dollars here and a couple hundred dollars there” to ease her financial hardships.

“Kuhlman said it went `on and on’ and said if she’s going to go to jail anyways, what’s another $500.00,” according to the declaration, which alleged she admitted the thefts grew “completely out of control.”

She’s currently on administrative leave, according to the school district.

Kuhlman remains free on $10,000 bail and is due to return to court Oct. 15 for a felony settlement conference.

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