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More Former St. Joseph Schools Administrators Forced To Repay State Retirement System

Sam Zeff
KCUR 89.3

Two more former high-ranking members of the St. Joseph School District have repaid tens of thousands of dollars to the Missouri state retirement system after it was discovered they inflated their incomes.

The Public School Retirement System (PSRS) has confirmed that Mark Hargens has repaid $90,000 and former superintendent Melody Smith has repaid $23,000.

Hargens retired from the district in 2006 as associate superintendent for personnel. He spent 27 years in various administrative roles in St. Joseph. Hargens served several years on the Northwest Missouri State University Board of Regents after retiring. His tenure ended last year.

Hargens was a very close associate of former superintendent Dan Colgan who will have to repay PSRS $660,000.

How Colgan managed to inflate his income to boost his retirement benefit was detailed in a KCUR/Ballotpedia investigationlast year. The FBI has been investigating the district for two years. Colgan has retained Brian Gaddy, a high profile white collar criminal lawyer in Kansas City. Colgan also spent five years on the St. Joseph School Board, including one year as president. He was forced off the board after a stipend scandal broke in 2014.

Smith spent seven years as superintendent and retired making $128,508. Many in the district have described her as Colgan's hand-picked successor when he left in 2006. She is now the interim assistant dean at the Missouri Western State University Western Institute.

PSRS Executive Director Steve Yoakum says both Smith and Hargens wrote checks to cover what they owed. "We have a fiduciary responsibly to our members and when we see something, we're going to investigate," he says. Yoakum also praised the St. Joseph School District saying officials were very cooperative and "kudos to them."

But this is another black eye for a district that's been dogged by scandal for two years. Former superintendent Fred Czerwonka was fired last February after the stipend scandal. The district paid out $450,000 to its former CFO for wrongly accusing him of sexual misconduct. The district was also criticized by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) for seeking state subsidies for summer school classes that didn't qualify.

School board member Chris Danford, who helped blow the whistle on the stipends, says she's appalled by this latest development. "This is limited taxpayer money, and students lost out," she says. "What on Earth were they thinking? It's just so sad."

Late in the day Melody Smith issued a statement saying the school district "mistakenly included a travel allowance as part of my salary instead of designating it as a benefit." The statement also said she cooperated with PSRS and the FBI "and the FBI has assured me I am under no criminal scrutiny."

Hargens told the St. Joseph News-Press that he couldn't comment at this time but hoped to in the future.

Sam Zeff  covers education for KCUR and is co-host of the political podcast Statehouse Blend. Follow him on Twitter @SamZeff.

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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