© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

St. Joseph School District To Lose $2 Million In State Aid

Sam Zeff

Update, Dec. 18:

The St. Joseph School District filed an action plan Monday with the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

In the letter to St. Joseph superintendent Dr. Fred Czerwona outlining the summer school programs the state disallowed, DESE required a plan from the district to make sure these mistakes don't happen again.

Czerwonka sent a one page letter to DESE saying, among other things, the district will review the summer school handbook every year and any changes will be reviewed by DESE.

“St. Joseph School District met our expectations with their assurance that district staff will review the Summer School Handbook and the criteria for allowable hours. They provided confirmation that their staff will contact the Department with questions before making future decisions about summer school programs," says DESE Deputy Commissioner Dennis Cooper in a statement.

The original story begins here:

The troubles for the St. Joseph, Mo., School District just keep getting deeper — and coming from unexpected directions.

The district is already under investigation by the FBI and the Missouri State Auditor. Now, Missouri's Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) says the district improperly charged the state for more than two dozen summer school classes.

Missouri funds local school districts based on "average daily attendance." The higher average attendance, the more money a district gets from Jefferson City. But the state won't pay for some types of summer classes, such as athletic camps, band camps, or day care services for which parents pay a fee.

DESE says the St. Joseph district sought reimbursement for just those kinds of classes.

“This is out of the ordinary ... pretty significantly out of the ordinary,” says DESE Deputy Commissioner Dennis Cooper.

Cooper sent a letter to St. Joseph Superintendent Dr. Fred Czerwonka outlining the problems on Oct. 14.

More than half of the summer school courses the district submitted for reimbursement were not allowed by the state. DESE says it has found no other district with such an extensive list of disallowed programs.

And it will cost the district plenty.

Czerwonka, in a brief discussion of this issue at a meeting Monday with the St. Joseph Board of Education, said the district will lose about $2 million in state funding.

“I’m not surprised. I mean, it’s just one more thing," says board of education member Chris Danford.

Danford has been critical of Czerwonka’s leadership ever since she helped uncover $270,000 in unapproved stipends for administrators and a half dozen secret promotions last spring.

She wants to know why Czerwonka got a letter from DESE in October, but she is only now finding out about it.

“No one has seen this letter. Nor have they seen this list of things that are disallowed,” says Danford.

DESE also says that a brief review of St. Joe’s summer school programs shows the problem of disallowed classes going back at least five years.

Deputy Commissioner Cooper says the department discovered the problem when it saw how St. Joseph was coding its summer school classes.

“We have three or four that are real flexible codes. And when they use those, that’s a red flag for us to then investigate further and ask the district, what is the nature of this course?”

Cooper declined to say whether he thought the district was trying to deceive DESE.

DESE spokesperson Sarah Potter says that, as of now, the state does not plan to ask the St. Joseph district to pay back summer school reimbursements from previous years.

By Monday, the district must submit a plan to DESE outlining how it will avoid this kind of problem in the future. Another thing, says school board member Chris Danford, she wasn’t told about by district administrators.

In a statement the district disputed some of the DESE findings. It says the district did not directly collect fees from parents and says any fees went to the organization that ran the class.

“We immediately began conversations with DESE in regards to their concerns upon receipt of the letter. We also began to formulate a plan with our staff to submit to the Office of Quality Schools to address those concerns,” Superintendent Fred Czerwonka said in the statement.

You deserve to know what your taxpayer dollars are paying for and what public officials are doing on your behalf – I’ll work to report on irresponsible government spending in the Kansas City area and shed light on controversies that slow government down. And when you hear my voice in the morning, you know you’re getting everything you need to start your day. Email me at sam@kcur.org, find me on Twitter @samzeff or call me at 816-235-5004.
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.