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Former Benton Harbor superintendent back in court

ST. JOSEPH, Mich. -

Over the course of two hours Tuesday afternoon, several witnesses testified and tons of evidence was presented at Dr. Leonard Seawood’s preliminary examination hearing.

Seawood is accused of misusing money from the school district he once led.

“Were you aware that the request was for 50 days of vacation pay?” asked Berrien County Assistant Prosecutor Amy Byrd.

“Uh…I’m not sure,” said Anthony Jett, a former Benton Harbor School Board president. “I can’t remember what the days were, to be honest with you, but I do know when I had the days presented to me, I called all the board members and I asked them individually that Dr. Seawood is requesting a payout for his vacation days, what do you think? And each board member agreed.”

This was just one piece of testimony in a winding trail of evidence and first-hand accounts of Seawood’s time as superintendent in Benton Harbor.

He was superintendent from July 2010 to October 2015.

Seawood was suspended by the school board in April 2015, and they later accepted his resignation in October of that year.

Just last month, Berrien County Prosecutor Mike Sepic charged Seawood with embezzlement and obtaining money by false pretenses.

Sepic alleges Seawood took a $45,000 cash payout for illegitimate extra vacation days between June 2012 and April 2015.

Five witnesses were brought in by the prosecution to testify on Tuesday.

They included three former school board presidents, a longtime and current school board member, and a woman who used to run the district’s business office.

The challenge is figuring out whether Seawood knew he was violating his contract.

He was allowed to receive a cash payout for five unused vacation days each year, but documents shown in court Tuesday state Seawood asked for more than that multiple times.

But his defense attorney argued Seawood was overworked and never took time off, as he tried to save a struggling school district.

His attorney said Seawood was simply asking to be paid for vacation days he earned but never had the chance to take.

Some of the witnesses echoed that.

“Dr. Seawood hardly ever took a vacation,” said Sharon James, a former school board president. “When he did take a vacation, he was called back for emergency – you know, emergent business. And I thought that he had just accumulated a number of days that he was allowed because he always was at work.”

So much happened in court on Tuesday that Judge Donna Howard decided to extend the hearing into next week.

She’s going to take the next few days to review all of the evidence before reconvening on May 26.

Howard will issue her opinion then.

Toward the end of Tuesday’s hearing, Seawood’s attorney said his client did tell an investigator in 2016 that he was aware his contract only allotted a payout for five unused vacation days each year.

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