by Jon Schuessler
The agenda for the March 24th, 2014 school board meeting in St. Joseph promised nothing new. Board Trustee Chris Danford, however, had something to say that nobody anticipated. Speaking in full view of the public, Danford – a former teacher in the district – blasted the school superintendent for paying out $5,000 bonuses behind the board’s back, while the district budget had recently suffered a $3 million cutback.
Her speech sparked a round of recriminations and scandal that would end up uncovering possibly the biggest case of school corruption in Missouri’s history.
Superintendent Fred Czerwonka had used school money to dole out 54 “stipends” of $5,000 to administrators in the district. The $270,000 payout had all the appearances of a massive bribery scheme to buy loyalty.
For his generosity, people started calling Czerwonka “The Candy Man”.
But why were the bribes needed? Czerwonka claims that it was necessary because of “poor morale”. In reality, however, it appears that giving money under the table to keep administrators quiet was a common practice dating back long before Czerwonka came to St. Joseph.
In fact, a Board Trustee and former Board President, Dan Colgan, had been the superintendent when the whole payout scheme had started 14 years ago. Dan Colgan had used his influence with the Board to bolster his salary and pension by as much as 80% above his publicly stated salary, by using secret stipends, tax-sheltered annuities, car allowances, etc. In 2002, Colgan’s salary was $108,000, but he was actually raking in over $185,000.
Later, as Board President, Colgan likely used his influence to get his son, Mark Colgan, promoted to “Technical Director” at the district’s warehouse. The promotion came with a $15,000 salary bump, even though Mark worked in an office two miles away from the actual warehouse.
Nepotism was rampant in the district. Fred Czerwonka’s wife, Wendy, was hired at the same time as her husband, to a full-time position that had formerly been part-time. Tammy Flowers, the wife of the Human Resources Director, was given a promotion to “Technical Director” and a $10,500 raise, even though her job responsibilities remained the same.
Most of these problems were known, or at least suspected, before Danford blew the whistle on the Candy Man stipends. By making them public record, however, Danford had gained the attention of the authorities. The FBI began a legal probe and set up an office in St. Joseph. A Kansas City grand jury issued subpoenas for school records.
State auditor Tom Schweich sent a team to the troubled district in April of 2014. He anticipated that the audit would be complete by the fall. Instead, the audit took almost a year. It was made public in late February of 2015.
The results were crushing. The State Auditor’s team had found that $3.8 million in kickback money had been paid to administrators in the last year alone. His office estimated that at least $25 million over eight years, and possibly as much as $40 million over 14 years, had been doled out in administrative “stipends”.
Beyond that, and nepotism, the audit found frequent violations of the Sunshine Laws, school policy, state policy, recordkeeping, credit card (or “procurement cards”) policy, proper fuel use, the proper sale of bonds, and bidding procedures.(Click here for the overall story of the scandal)
Following the state audit findings, Fred Czerwonka was fired by a Board vote taken on February 20th, 2015. Dan Colgan refused to attend the Board meeting or vote.
Under public pressure, Dan Colgan resigned from the Board of Trustees on March 5th, 2015. His free lifetime health coverage, paid by the district, was revoked in mid-September.
Mark Colgan’s warehouse position was eliminated in August.
A school tax renewal was scheduled to be put to a vote in April. After the scandal, the Board withdrew it. The district lost $6.5 million in revenue.
Fred and Wendy Czerwonka were both hired by the Caruthersville School District. Fred is director of school services, and Wendy teaches business.
Tenured teacher and HR Director Doug Flowers was demoted to a teaching position, then fired a year later in July of 2015. He was given more than $30,000 as a severance package. The district says that they retain the right to repayment if he is later convicted of a crime committed while he worked for the district.
The FBI and grand jury investigation is still in progress.
In response to the alarming degree of complicity of Board members in defrauding the St. Joseph school district, State Representative Delus Johnson (9th district), of St. Joseph, introduced House Bill 63. The bill, which limits the terms of school board members in high-population districts to 3 years, overrode Gov. Nixon's veto and became law in May of 2015.(Click here for the story of resignations and firings)
For more information on this story, particularly the role of Beau Musser, Doug Flowers, and Sam Zeff, click here.Continue to Next Article | Back to Part Three
Jon Schuessler is a Volunteer leader in Jefferson County, and the chairman for Missouri Volunteers for Government Reform, a Political Action Committee (PAC) of the Volunteer Movement. Click here to read his bio or contact him.