Pony Express statue in St. Joseph
St. Joseph is a city of around 80,000 people about 50 miles north of Kansas City. Hard up against the Missouri River, St. Joseph is best-known as the birthplace of the Pony Express and as the town where Jesse James was shot dead.
A once vibrant downtown is now pretty much deserted during the day except for people who have business at the county courthouse or state office building.
The St. Joseph School District has about 11,000 students and is the third-largest employer in the city. It has a reputation for below-average pay and, say those who’ve been associated with the district for many years, a rocky relationship with teachers.
Dr. Fred Czerwonka took over as superintendent last July. He came from a smaller school district near the Lake of the Ozarks in Southern Missouri where he had risen through the ranks to become superintendent.
Just weeks into his tenure, Czerwonka, according to district officials, got a rebate from the district’s insurance company.
Board policy dictates that that money be reported to the board and then deposited. However, according to Danford and others in the district, Czerwonka decided to divvy up the money among administrators.
St. Joseph Superintendent Fred Czerwonka, nicknamed "The Candy Man"
In certain circles around the district, Dr. Czerwonka was now nicknamed "The Candy Man."
But it was his decision not to inform the board about these $5,000 stipends, a decision he admitted to and apologized for in an open meeting, that led to the current investigations and a smoldering disdain among many of the district’s teachers and patrons.
"It’s not about educating students," says local NEA President Todd Brockett. "It’s about bloating administrative salaries."
Brockett teaches middle school history and computer-aided design. He’s taught in the St. Joseph School District for 23 years and, like almost everyone connected to this story, is a native who loves his hometown.
Czerwonka is a seasoned school administrator. So why would he do something that clearly violated board policy?
"I think he was buying loyalty," says Danford. "What’s a quick way to come into a town where you know nothing, you know no one? People have been in their jobs forever. In fact, some of the people downtown applied for that job. What’s the quickest way that you can make everyone happy? Give them more money."
All of this came to light at a Board of Education meeting in March.
A month later, Czerwonka justified it at another board meeting. He admitted he created a "massive mess."
But in a passionate speech during that April board meeting, he argued administrative salaries were low, top administrators were departing and morale was bad.
The district wouldn’t make anyone available for an interview, saying administrators were busy doing job interviews and fulfilling document requests for a lawsuit, the State Auditor and the U.S. Attorney.
Czerwonka did issue a statement. "Stipends are given for extra work or duty performed outside the normal work day. Extra work and responsibility were required to be performed, therefore the stipend amount was increased accordingly."