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In West Plains, two versions of Fred Czerwonka

By Alonzo Weston, St. Joseph News-Press, Mo.
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

May 04--WEST PLAINS, Mo. -- Fred Czerwonka saw controversy as superintendent of the West Plains School District, but nothing like what he's seen in St. Joseph.

Dr. Czerwonka spent 10 years in the West Plains R-VII School District. He worked his way up from middle school principal to superintendent in that time. And in that same time, two different opinions were formed about his character and his service, one good one not so good.

Jim Thompson, West Plains R-VII board president, described Dr. Czerwonka as a highly ethical and driven man who was also somewhat of a visionary. During his tenure there, Dr. Czerwonka took the West Plains School District to another academic level. He was also a fair and efficient administrator, Mr. Thompson said.

"I'd take him back in a heartbeat," Mr. Thompson said.

Contrast that view with Frank Martin, the editor and publisher of the West Plains Daily Quill. Mr. Martin recalls the time Dr. Czerwonka came into the news office, upset about a story the Quill had written about a reported flash mob suicide rumor at the high school. Facebook lit up with fear. Parent were terrified. This was a week after the Sandy Hook school shootings.

"I found him very arrogant," Mr. Martin said.

The St. Joseph School District hired Dr. Czerwonka last year, signing him to a base salary of $190,000 with a $12,000 annuity and a $500 per month car allowance. Less than a year later, recent circumstances surrounding Dr. Czerwoka and some of his decisions have some members of the community wondering which version of Dr. Czerwonka they got for their money.

Those questions began to surface in late March with concerns about stipends paid to administrators. That was followed by the St. Joseph district's chief financial officer, Beau Musser, being placed on paid administrative leave. The Missouri auditor's office contacted the district about conducting an audit of its budget. And the FBI moved in to look into issues surrounding the district.

Dr. Czerwonka issued an apology to the community for the turmoil. It has diverted attention from what he sees as the district's real business, which is kids, he said at a press conference.

"I'm confident I can address these issues that have been raised if given the opportunity, and contrary to rumors circulating, I'm here to stay. Let me repeat that: I'm here to stay," Dr. Czerwonka said in an earlier News-Press story.

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Those stories trickled down to West Plains, where some people were surprised about issues surrounding Dr. Czerwonka, while others were not.

The new certainly didn't surprise Vernon and Sharon Hunter. Mrs. Hunter was suspended without pay on the last day of school in 2011.

Mrs. Hunter alleged that Dr. Czerwonka made a push to get rid of her after she evicted the assistant superintendent's sister from a rental unit. "Suddenly I was incompetent and inefficient and insubordinate. He came in January with targets to get rid of me," she said.

A subsequent public hearing was held, where some administrators considered Mrs. Hunter incompetent as a teacher. She was eventually terminated.

Mrs. Hunter said Dr. Czerwonka also created administrative positions at a time when teachers' supplies were cut. The district couldn't afford raises for teachers, but Dr. Czerwonka wanted the district to pay for health insurance for administrators and their families. The money was given to them in a lump sum instead.

"At the same time we don't have money for this, but we can buy their families health plans?" Mrs. Hunter said.

Mr. Hunter believes that what St. Joseph is now experiencing seems like a carbon copy experience of the superintendent's tenure in West Plains. He even called the West Plains board members "bobbleheads," in that they agreed to whatever Dr. Czerwonka wanted.

A West Plains businessman who asked not to be identified said he felt the district did well under Dr. Czerwonka's leadership. He said West Plains has always had a school board that allowed the superintendent free rein.

"Prior to Fred, we had a school superintendent who, frankly, should be incarcerated. I think our school board knew of some of the things he did and essentially covered them up and waited until his contract was up and let him out," the businessman said.

"I certainly was not an advocate when Fred was here that he needed to go."

Ed Button, news director for the Ozark Radio Network, said when he read reports about the issues surrounding Dr. Czerwonka in St. Joseph, he was surprised. It didn't sound like the person he knew in his four years of working with him.

"He was extremely good in his job here. I've always known him to be a fiscally responsible person, very smart with money," Mr. Button said.

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"I think that's what shocked me. When this came out, I asked myself, what was he thinking? You just can't go up and do that. You can't take a quarter of a million dollars and throw it out like Oprah does."

Mr. Button said Dr. Czerwonka and his wife are very nice and honest people. He never had any problems getting information from Dr. Czerwonka on school issues and from board meetings. He said many people in the community were upset that he left the district.

"The thing in St. Joe, I think he meant well, I think he wanted to do the right thing, but I don't think he was thinking clearly at the time," Mr. Button said.

Mr. Thompson said he too was shocked by the stories. He also feels there's more to be told.

"The FBI doesn't just show up on your door and you have one board member raising a stink and you kind of put two and two together," he said. "Something is going on that needs to be told."

Alonzo Weston can be reached at alonzo.weston@newspressnow.com. Follow him on Twitter: @SJNPWeston.

___

(c)2014 the St. Joseph News-Press (St. Joseph, Mo.)

Visit the St. Joseph News-Press (St. Joseph, Mo.) at www.newspressnow.com/index.html

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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