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St. Joseph School Superintendent Resigns In Odd Fashion

Sam Zeff

Dr. Fred Czerwonka, on paid administrative leave for the past 90 days as superintendent of the St. Joseph School District, abruptly resigned late Friday night.

But in one final twist to his rocky tenure, Czerwonka's letter of resignation was not sent to school board members but to the St. Joseph News Press.

"I hope my resignation can allow the District to move forward with the hiring of my successor. I look forward to continuing the good work I have been put here by God to do," Czerwonka wrote in a letter address to board president Brad Haggard.

However Haggard, nor anyone else on the board, had actually received the letter from Czerwonka. All had only seen it posted on the News Press web site. Board members believe the letter to be legitimate.

Czerwonka's contract would have allowed him to demand a hearing before the board to fight his firing. Now that won't happen.

Board member Kappy Hodges says with Czerwonka gone the district can start searching for a new superintendent. "There won't be a hearing so now we can move forward with hiring a new superintendent. That's all we really want to do."

Czerwonka was ousted after a scathing report from the Missouri state auditor that uncovered up to $40 million in secret payments to staff since 2000. Board members never approved most of those stipends and didn't even know many of them existed. The audit also uncovered nepotism, no-bid contracts and numerous violations of the Missouri Sunshine Act.

Czerwonka's wife Wendy runs the district's program for homeless students. Last year she received a controversial promotion and raise. There's no word on when or if she might leave her job.

Czerwonka's two year tenure at the top of the St. Joseph district was dogged by controversy almost from the very beginning. Just two months into the job he approved secret $5,000 stipends to 54 administrators.

But they didn't stay secret for long. Board member Chris Danford discovered the stipends and confronted Czerwonka at a school board meeting last March. By April the FBI and a federal grand jury were investigating. And it was about this time last year, in a private meeting with Czerwonka, that Danford demanded his resignation.

Now she's pleased that another ugly chapter in the district's history is in the past. "I am relieved that this is finally behind us and the district can move forward," Danford says.

The district is slowly moving past many of the issues that's plagued it for the past year. In March the board settled a slander lawsuit with its CFO for $450,000. The board has also fired its COO and demoted its HR director. Both were roundly criticized in the state audit.

The FBI investigation is now the main problem facing the district. Agents have conducted hundreds of interviews and a federal grand jury in Kansas City has served four subpoenas for documents in St. Joseph and one in West Plains, Mo. where Czerwonka served as superintendent before taking the job in St. Joseph.

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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