St. Joseph residents will decide Nov. 7 whether to raise their property taxes by 38 percent to provide more money for schools.
But you’re mistaken if you think the election is really about that. It’s more like a referendum on the school district’s past transgressions, which are almost legendary in the world of Missouri public education.
St. Joe schools need the money because three years ago, a portion of its property tax dropped off the books. That, however, coincided with several misdeeds coming to light.
Former board president and superintendent Dan Colgan went to federal prison for wire fraud in connection with a scheme to inflate his pension (he’s scheduled to get out Nov. 16). The district paid $450,000 to settle a slander lawsuit with former CFO Beau Musser. Plus, there were allegations that administrators used district workers for plumbing and electrical work.
The district decided it would be futile in 2014 to ask voters to renew the tax.
The plan that’s on the November ballot would raise property taxes about $220 a year on a $80,000 house. And it’s drawing criticism from former school board members Chris Danford and Eric Bruder.
Danford, who blew the whistle on $270,000 of stipends secretly paid to 54 administrators without board approval, says it’s not just about higher taxes. It’s about trust between the district and residents.
“Don’t you trust us? Isn’t that what it comes down to, don’t you trust us? And I think the answer is a resounding, no we don’t trust you,” she recently said on KFEQ-AM.
Danford, who resigned from the board in February, was a teacher and counselor in the district for 25 years before winning a seat on the board. Her kids went to St. Joe schools. So, the fact that she’s fighting the tax hike is a big deal.
“There’s nothing pretty about putting a ‘vote no’ sign in your yard. It will be the first time in my life that I will have voted no for something I’m so passionate about. But that’s where I stand on this. That’s how important it is to me,” she says.
Bruder, who also spoke on KFEQ, says the culture that allowed the misdeeds to flourish still exists.
“I do think there’s a culture that needs to change and you can’t force that change until people run out of money for their spending habits and the public forces the change. If they vote yes for this levy, they’re not going to be forcing the change necessary,” he says.
Not everyone thinks that way, especially Pat Dillion, who co-chairs The Committee to Move St. Joseph Forward.
“For those who still think that culture exists, I don’t think they’ve gotten close enough to the district. I think they’ve come and sat through the board meetings. I don’t think they’ve personally gone and met some of the new administrators. I think they whole thing has flipped,” he says.
A good portion of it has flipped anyway. The three biggest names associated with the scandals have been gone from the district for at least two years. Colgan resigned from the board and eventually went to prison and had to repay the Missouri pension system $660,000. Former superintendent Fred Czerwonka was fired (he's now director of school services in the Caruthersville school district in the Bootheel.) And former HR director Doug Flowers, whose wife was a highly paid administrator, was demoted and eventually resigned.
Colgan, Czerwonka and Flowers drew early attention from the FBI, according to documents obtained by KCUR through a Freedom of Information Act request.
On April 8, 2014, the administrators were highlighted in a document the FBI calls a “letterhead memorandum” — essentially, agents asking their bosses for permission to pursue the case. The agent writes that he “intends to interview Czerwonka, Colgan and Flowers as soon as possible to lock them into their stories regarding the unauthorized payments and promotions.”
The board decided to retroactively approve the stipends, derailing that part of the FBI investigation. The FBI then redirected its attention to Colgan's pension, which led to his conviction nearly a year ago.
“It was a culture of entitlement. A belief in entitlement,” St. Joseph Superintendent Robert Newhart says. He was brought in two-and-a-half years ago. “We’re stabilized. That culture, especially in this downtown building where the majority of it existed, has been stabilized.”
But the lack of school funding has cost the community jobs and growth opportunities, says Kristie Arthur with the St. Joseph Chamber of Commerce.
“I’ve given people tours around and they’ve come from other communities and they’re like, ‘What are you guys doing to your schools? What’s going on? Why is it like this?’”
The answer is simple: Nepotism, back-room deals and administrators lining their own pockets.
The debate aside, there are two points of agreement in St. Joseph: Something needs to be done about school funding. And the election will be close.