St. Joseph, Missouri School District's Legal And Political Troubles Mount
The St. Joseph, Mo., school district is heading into perhaps the most difficult and trying few months in its history.
As the district’s legal troubles get both deeper and broader, much of the time and effort of the Board of Education and the administration is consumed by remediation and litigation.
Here's just one example.
At a regular board meeting earlier this month all seemed normal. First the Pledge of Allegiance followed by recognition of district Special Olympians.
But sitting in the audience among parents and community members was FBI Special Agent Kurt Lipanovich and his partner, Special Agent Andrew Thomure. They attend almost every board of education meeting, a constant reminder to those district officials under investigation that the government isn’t going away.
Before the meeting started Thomure had embattled district CFO Beau Musser sign a document in front of the whole room. Neither Musser nor the FBI would disclose the contents of the document.
Three days earlier the board renewed its contract with J.R. Hobbs, a prominent white collar criminal lawyer in Kansas City. Hobbs had little to say about the ongoing FBI and federal grand jury investigations.
"There’s an ongoing investigation and I don’t think any more detail comment would be appropriate," he said. "The district and the board has no target letter."
Sources in the district and at the St. Joseph News-Press say the FBI is now focused on whether district maintenance staff were forced to do work at the homes of administrators.
The investigation has moved far beyond the $5,000 stipends handed out to 54 administrators earlier this yearwithout board approval. It’s moved beyond the other dozen stipends also secretly paid to top staff — beyond changes of ingrained nepotism.
Just last week the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said it was withholding $1.85 million in state money because of improper summer school classes the district submitted for reimbursement.
Many teachers and staff are on edge.
"It does make it a little bit more scary," says Lacey Hochenauer who teaches first grade at Lindbergh Elementary School on St. Joe’s North side.
"You feel like you can never really know who you can trust or really talk to. What you may say or not say."
But the FBI investigation just tops the pile of legal and political troubles for the St. Joseph district. The Missouri State Auditor just finished an investigation, and the district’s liability insurance carrier has gone to federal court seeking to cancel its policy because of potential fraud.
All of this comes as part of the district’s property tax levy is about to sunset next year. The district stands to lose $6.5 million in revenue if it can’t convince voters to renew the levy.
Board president Brad Haggard says the district commissioned a poll that will be released in the coming weeks to see what patrons think.
"You know, any tax is hard to pass and so we’ll see what the poll says, see where we need to do our work with community engagement and, you know, we’ll address any concerns the community has," Haggard says.
There’s no doubt the community has concerns. Big concerns.
"At every turn they have had the opportunity to protect the children, they’ve had an opportunity to protect the school district and they’ve chosen not to," says local business owner John Hickman who has a first grader in the district.
He says a number of people in the community are now looking at ways to oust some board members.
But there’s one other legal battle hanging over the district that has rubbed emotions raw.
The lawsuit filed against the district by CFO Beau Musser.
In just his first week on the job last year he uncovered hundreds of thousands of dollars in consultant contracts unapproved by the board and 4,000 gallons of missing gasoline.
When he took his findings to his boss, Superintendent Dr. Fred Czerwonka, Musser says he was not met with praise but with accusations of sexual misconduct and an offer to buy out his contract and quietly leave the district.
Instead, Musser sued for slander and violations of Missouri’s whistle blower act.
An outside investigation paid for by the district determined Musser did nothing wrong. The board voted to bring him back to work.
But now Musser sits in meetings with the same men who accused him of sexual harassment.
"You know, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a little uncomfortable," says Musser. "There was a black cloud over my name for eight months."
"The fact of the matter is, I wasn’t even getting interviews for jobs and so I didn’t have any opportunities," says Musser, as he got choked up.
The Beau Musser saga has become an emotional one for St. Joe.
Stories about his lawsuit generate some of the most passionate and emotional online comments. Teachers look at him as the man who spoke truth to power. Some have called him a hero.
"It’s been a rough eight months and so praise has been few and far between," he says. "And the fact of the matter is there’s a lot of people who don’t want me back here that would rather not have me back and so it feels good to hear a comment like that and know that other people do respect me and do trust me."
Truth is, life is probably going to continue to be uncomfortable for Musser in the near future. Even though he’s back to work, his lawsuit is still active and the district is paying for yet another investigating to see if Czerwonka and HR director Doug Flowers acted improperly when they accused Musser of misconduct.