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Meet The Reluctant Whistle Blowers From The St. Joseph School District

Sam Zeff
It has been a year since the scandals in the St. Joseph School District broke.

It was a year ago that the first crack appeared in what many in the St. Joseph School District called the "friends and family plan."

If you were connected, you cashed in.

On March 24 of last year a routine school board meeting took a sudden and drastic twist.

School board member Chris Danford, to the surprise of everyone in the room, blew the whistle on a stipend program that would open up the district to investigations by the FBI, a grand jury and the Missouri State Auditor.

"It’s just absolutely amazing that those things were kept as silent as they were with as many people who knew. It was amazing," says St. Joseph NEA President Todd Brockett, a 23-year veteran of the district.

He was at that school board meeting and says he knew what Danford did was big.

But few knew just how big it would become, including Danford herself.

Credit St. Joseph School District
St. Joseph School Board member Chris Danford.

"Oh my gosh, I was naive. Horribly naive," she says. "I admit, I lived in a world, my husband would say, you just had those rose-colored glasses on.

Those rose-colored glasses came off when Danford discovered that the new superintendent at the time, Fred Czerwonka, used an insurance rebate to hand out $5,000 stipends to 54 administrators.

Czerwonka picked up nickname "The Candy Man."

Danford didn't know it at the time, but The Candy Man stipends had also been uncovered by the district’s new CFO Beau Musser, who left the private sector to take what he calls his dream job.

"I thought to myself, what better job, I couldn’t have a better job than to sit here as the CFO of the St. Joe School District and try to make my community a better place," he says.

Danford and Musser are St. Joe natives with deep roots in the community.

Musser was a basketball star at Benton High. Danford taught in the district for 25 years.

Neither had a history of agitation or activism.

But there they were, standing together against what a state audit would suggest is a district rife with cronyism, nepotism and bad business practices.

Credit St. Joseph School District
St. Joseph School District CFO Beau Musser.

Musser says his fellow administrators weren’t used to real oversight.

"Obviously I think I made people nervous around here asking questions that hadn’t been asked before."

The state audit uncovered up to $40 million in unapproved stipends paid out since 2000.

Some administrators were making an extra $35,000 a year in payments the school board never approved and, in most cases, never knew about.

District documents show Dan Colgan, a former superintendent and later school board president, was given a $15,000 bonus when he retired in 2005 and granted lifetime health coverage.

Danford says she now knows years of the district claiming it had no money was a lie.

"We were told out in the classrooms, we don’t have money to buy more text books, you’re going to have to share. We don’t have the dollars to pay for the choir to go places, whatever. We don’t have the money. Lie. Lie, lie, lie. There was money. There was money all the time. It just wasn’t going to the kids."

Both Danford and Musser have paid a price for standing up to a corrupt system dozens of other board members and administrators just became a part of over the years.

Musser was accused of sexual misconduct by Superintendent Fred Czerwonka and HR Director Doug Flowers.

According to Musser’s lawsuit against the district, they tried to silence him by offering to buy out his contract in return for resigning.

Musser was cleared of wrongdoing by an outside investigation last fall. His slander lawsuit is ongoing.

"You know, it hasn’t been easy for me, hasn’t been easy for my family. But the difficult part of what’s transpired is kind of behind us, you know. I’m back to work. My name’s been cleared," he says.

As for Chris Danford, she says in the past year she’s lost long-time friends who told her they felt betrayed.

She’s been savaged on social media, been told she’s ruined the district.

And while the state audit and the ongoing FBI investigation shows she was right, Danford admits she’s a reluctant warrior.

"Knowing what I know today would I do this again? I don’t know that I would be that brave. No, I don’t think I could muster up the courage to speak out like that."

Much has changed in the last year, since Danford and Musser took their stands.

Superintendent Fred Czerwonka was fired, as was the district COO, Rick Hartigan.

Human Resources Director Doug Flowers was demoted and offered a teaching contract for next year.

Dan Colgan was forced to resign from the school board.

But the district has made inroads to transparency and cleaning up some of the sloppy procedures uncovered by the state audit.

But two huge questions loom.

Will these changes be enough for voters to reauthorize part of the district’s property tax levy that sunsets later this year? At stake is $6.5 million in yearly property tax revenue.

And what early morning will the FBI go knocking on doors and who will agents lead away in handcuffs?

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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