Missouri has seen its share of boondoggles. To name a few in recent years, Moberly was taken in on a $39 million sucralose scam that downgraded the city’s credit rating, left bondholders hanging, and resulted in jail time for one of the masterminds. In Kansas City, officials had to settle with a developer for millions over the failed Citadel redevelopment project, which saw criminal prosecutions of its own.
Now enters the St. Joseph School District. As reported by the St. Joseph News-Press:
“We went back about eight years and found there was over $25 million worth of stipends either not approved, unauthorized or improper. That $25 million worth of stipends is what we found to be problematic,” [State Auditor Tom Schweich] told the crowd inside the Oak Grove Elementary School commons area.
Since there was not full documentation going back further than 2001, Mr. Schweich added, that number could be in excess of $40 million paid out in stipends over that period.
“That is a startling amount of money,” he said, followed by a collective groan from the audience.
“Startling” is an understatement. The questionable stipends account for, on average, over $3 million each of the last eight years that could have gone toward substantive and proper investments in the education of St. Joseph’s children. Instead, according to the News-Press, it appears the money went to a wide array of cronyistic efforts,
including $45 for a Sam’s Club membership for [Superintendent Dr. Fred] Czerwonka, $1,500 for a painting for [Chief Operating Officer Rick] Hartigan’s office and $7,650 in free Internet service for 16 individuals, including an individual the district claimed they did not know.
In the auditor’s words, the stipends operated much like a “slush fund.” Throw in $3.4 million in overpayments from the state to the district because of inaccurate reporting and a swath of closed district meetings that should have been open to the public, and you have the makings of a full-blown scandal in northwest Missouri. It remains to be seen whether criminal action will be taken in the matter, but that seems to be very much on the table at this point.
Frequent readers of this blog know about our positions on transparency (for) and cronyism (against), so I won’t belabor those policy prescriptions in light of the district’s failures. The sheer magnitude of the district’s blackbox behavior is a better argument for vigilance and reform of state and local government than my words alone could offer.
It also goes without saying (though I’ll say it anyway) that “per pupil spending” remains a meaningless statistic, a fact emphasized here. How much you spend “on” a student doesn’t matter if the line items are $1,500 on administrators’ art, rather than $1,500 on the art department.
And yes, there will be many important story lines that will be worth talking about as the district’s actions are fully vetted, but one story line that has to remain front and center is how shameful it is that it took more than a decade for these problems to fully come to light—and the risk that St. Joseph’s scandal is just the canary in the coal mine statewide. That this school district was insulated so long from critical oversight makes me wonder whether similar behaviors might be taking place in one of the other 519 districts (!) in the state . . . and we simply don’t know it yet.
More to the point: If Missouri’s school districts are going to tell the state they have funding problems, then it’s fair for the state and the taxpayers to take a fresh look at how each district spends, or misspends, the state’s tax dollars. That is especially true in light of St. Joseph’s present troubles.
Education funding should be for the children, not for the districts, and it’s time district books were cracked open and thoroughly reviewed. For the state to deliver a quality education for our kids, it needs to hold every district accountable not only to stop problems like this from happening again, but also to ensure that they’re still not happening someplace else.