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Missouri State Auditor Rates St. Joseph School District Performance 'Poor'

Sam Zeff

The long anticipatedstate audit of the St. Joseph School District uncovered more secret payments to administrators than first thought, numerous instances of questionable use of district money by the superintendent and COO, and a general lack of financial control.

Missouri State Auditor Thomas Schweich released the report at Oak Grove Elementary School Tuesday evening.

“If you look at the total number of findings it’s very high," Schwiech told a packed room. "But also the total number of dollars involved in that stipend system.  $25 million over eight years. Maybe $40 million over 14 years. That’s a staggering amount of money.”

The report discovered $3.8 million in stipend payments to administrators and some staff just last school year.

“I was shocked," says Tom Pankiewicz who taught for 30 years in the district. "It was so devastating the amount of money that’s been wasted over the past years. It’s sad.”

The report rated the district's performance as poor, which means most of what was uncovered needs "immediate attention" to "significantly improve operations."

St. Joseph is the only school district in Missouri to receive a rating of poor in the past several years. The auditor found many problems in the Kansas City Public Schools, the St. Louis Schools and the Hickman Mills district, but all of those districts were rated fair.

The auditor says some of this "additional compensation appears questionable and unnecessary."

FBI and grand jury investigations into the St. Joseph School District began after $5,000 stipends were paid to 54 top administrators last year by Superintendent Fred Czerwonka. Those payments, now referred to as the "Candyman" stipends, were not approved by the school board.

In fact, the state auditor says, most of the stipends and extra duty payments made to administrators and staff were unknown and unapproved by the board.

The Candyman stipends were uncovered by board member Chris Danford last spring. She says the audit is a vindication.

Credit Sam Zeff / KCUR
St. Joseph School Board members listens as Missouri State Auditor Tom Schweich releases his report.

“I have felt like I was the crazy red head board member who was making a big deal about things because I’ve been treated that way.”

After the board reviewed a draft copy of the audit three weeks ago, it voted to place both Czerwonka and COO Rick Hartigan on paid administrative leave.

Both men were singled out in the auditor's report.

Czerwonka, the report says, was paid $6,000 above his approved contract salary of $190,000 because he has a graduate degree. Such a degree, according the the report, was a requirement for the job and thus no additional compensation should have been paid.

The auditor also questioned Czerwonka's $500 a month vehicle allowance and a trip to a superintendent's conference in Tampa, Fla., where the district paid for Czerwonka's wife, Wendy. Wendy Czerwonka runs the district's programs for homeless students and received a controversial raise and promotion last year after being with the district for only a few months.

The auditor also criticized the structure of Hartigan's compensation package. The report says the 26-year veteran of the district received more than $35,000 in stipends, most unknown to the school board, in addition to his base salary of $97,700 a year.

The report also questioned Hartigan for spending almost $3,400 to remodel his office, including more than $1,500 for a painting.

Hartigan has said he's done nothing wrong. Czerwonka has not commented since going on administrative leave.

Danford says all of this has hurt the children of the St. Joseph School District.

“I mean, we stopped doing field trips. We don’t have text books for everyone. We have larger classes. I mean we could have done so much more for our students. They don’t get those years back.”

The district has said it will try to implement all the changes recommended by the auditor.

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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