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St. Joseph School Superintendent, COO Placed On Administrative Leave

Sam Zeff

Update: Jan. 22, 2:25 pm

The St. Joseph School District has confirmed that Superintendent Fred Czerwonka and Chief Operating Officer Rick Hartigan are now on administrative leave.

"Because these are personnel matters that are the subject of an ongoing investigation, the Board will have no further comment on either action at this time," the district said in a statement.

The board has appointed Dr. Jake Long as acting superintendent.

Long is the Director of Transportation and Security for the St. Joseph district.

Long was an assistant principal in the West Plains School District when Czerwonka was superintendent there.

The original post begins here:

The two top administrators in the embattled St. Joseph School District have been placed on paid administrative leave following a tense, daylong district Board of Education meeting held earlier this week behind closed doors.

High-level school district officials confirmed the action to KCUR late Wednesday night.

Dr. Fred Czerwonka has been superintendent in St. Joseph for less then two years, but controversy has dogged him almost from the beginning.

Chief Operating Officer Rick Hartigan joined the district in 1988 and was promoted to COO ten years later.

Sources say four board members voted in the executive session to place both men on administrative leave.

Hartigan appeared before the closed session Tuesday with his lawyer and a court reporter. Neither Hartigan nor his lawyer would comment as they walked out of the district's downtown headquarters together.

Czerwonka also left his office Tuesday without commenting on the executive session or any of the investigations now underway into the district's finances and operations.

All of the district's current troubles can be traced to $5,000 stipends, given as extra pay to administrators in the district.

Czerwonka was hired from the West Plains School District in the Ozarks. Soon after he started in July 2013, the district received an insurance rebate.

It was later revealed at a board meeting in March of 2014 that Czerwonka took that $270,000 and handed out secret payments to 54 district administrators. Board policy dictated that he report that money to the Board of Education and deposit it in the bank.

After Czerwonka granted the stipends, he quickly picked up a nickname: The Candy Man.

The Candy Man stipends opened the door for the huge problems now facing the 15th biggest school district in Missouri, which serves about 11,000 students.

The FBI has been investigating the district since last April and sits in on every school board meeting. The district has also been served with three subpoenas for documents from a grand jury in Kansas City. District insiders expect another subpoena soon.

During Tuesday's executive session ,the board also reviewed a 49-page report from the Missouri State Auditor. Those who've seen the report describe it as scathing and detailed, they also say it examines district operations going back at least to 2000.

The district is also fighting a slander lawsuit filed by its chief financial officer. Just a few weeks ago , the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education told the district it was withholding $1.9 million in state aid because of disallowed summer school classes for which the district tried to be reimbursed.

Another executive session is scheduled for Monday morning at the district's headquarters. It's expected that official word on the status of Czerwonka and Hartigan will be released at that time.

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.
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