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From cars to turkey jerky, audit finds misspending in Fox school district

Missouri Auditor Nicole Galloway and audit manager Chris Vetter discuss findings from Fox school district May 25, 2016
File photo I Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio

Updated 11:00 a.m. May 26 with fuller response from Critchlow: Under former Superintendent Dianne Critchlow, the Fox school district in Jefferson County misspent hundreds of thousands of dollars on salaries and credit card purchases, and the district’s school board did nothing to stop the practice, a state audit found.

Auditor Nicole Galloway, who released the audit at a news conference in St. Louis on Wednesday, said her office rated the district as poor, the lowest possible. Because of that determination, she said, the auditor’s office will follow up on recommendations in the audit in the coming months.

She also said information in the audit would be passed along to the Jefferson County prosecutor's office to determine whether any charges should be filed.

The current administration of the district said it agreed with the bulk of the audit’s conclusions. But Galloway said Critchlow has not agreed to meet with her office to discuss the findings. 

A statement released by Critchlow's lawyer, Brandy Barth, refuted many of the audit's conclusions.

"This Audit represents a one-sided and biased account filled with inaccuracies, half information and misleading statements," the statement said. "Dr. Critchlow has cooperated in this Audit, yet very few of her responses were included in the Auditor’s report. It was Dr. Critchlow who first initiated contact with the Auditor’s office after months of being ignored. Dr. Critchlow never refused to sit down with the auditors, and voluntarily provided multiple written responses and additional documentation."

The statement also said all expenditures by the former superintendent were approved.

"Of the alleged $96,000 so-called “questionable” credit card charges," the statement said, "only a quarter of those charges appeared on Dr. Critchlow’s credit card, according to the Audit. Many of the “questionable” items that have been identified as personal purchases for Dr. Critchlow were, to the contrary, purchased for school events and recognition awards, such as retirement dinners, teacher years-of-service awards, and prizes at scholarship fundraisers (which was funded by the participants).

"Contrary to innuendos and insinuations in the Audit, Dr. Critchlow was never in charge of setting her own salary and did not have access to electronic signatures. Dr. Critchlow explained the changes to her contracts to the Auditors, but yet again, the Auditors failed to provide her explanations. Dr. Critchlow is confident that the Board members who approved her contracts will confirm that there was nothing improper in the way that Dr. Critchlow was paid."

Galloway's assessment of Critchlow's behavior in office was harsh.

“The former superintendent used taxpayer dollars to personally benefit her and a select few individuals close to her,” she said, “without adequate oversight by the board, a pattern that continued for far too long. Checks and balances weren’t in place, or weren’t functioning properly at all, to stop abuses and to put students first.”

Asked what lessons can be learned from the audit, Galloway said:

“I think this is an opportunity to move forward. This is an opportunity to put this in the past, implement recommendations so it doesn’t happen again, and we can get back to focusing on education and serving the families within the district.”

The 105-page audit detailed spending by Fox in several areas, including credit card purchases, salaries, scholarships and more. In almost every category, the auditor’s office found serious shortcomings in accountability and oversight by the district’s school board.

For example:

— Credit card purchases by Critchlow and others in her office totaled more than $100,000 in unauthorized spending. More than 20 pages of detail listed items ranging from camera and video equipment to hotel rooms, from a personalized watch to a rhinestone lanyard, from logging equipment to iPad cases and phone charging cords, from a slow-pitch softball bat to turkey jerky.

District records showed that some items were returned; but the district has not identified repayment for improper charges or reimbursements.

The audit found that thousands of dollars were spent on gift cards at such places as Best Buy and Buffalo Wild Wings that Critchlow said were for needy families, but Fox did not have a formal gift card program and officials could not find any documentation for recipients of the cards.

— Under the category of salaries, Galloway said that in several cases, Critchlow’s compensation was increased without proper approval. Her contract for 2012-13 was for $234,368, but she was paid $12,456 more than the contract called for, with no documentation.

A table included in the audit report shows that while Fox ranked 17th in enrollment among the top 20 districts in Missouri, Critchlow’s contract salary ranked second and her pay per pupil ranked first. By the end of her nine-year tenure in Fox, she was the second-highest paid superintendent in Missouri.

Dianne Critchlow
Credit Fox school district
Dianne Critchlow

“Given the substantial salary paid to Dr. Critchlow,” the audit said, “it was imperative for the district to exercise great care when making decisions regarding her compensation and to properly approve and document her employment contracts and any subsequent changes.”

Similar findings also applied to other administrative salaries in the district. Critchlow’s husband, who was also a district administrator, was among those who received what the audit termed “inappropriate salary increases that were not approved by the board.

— For transportation, the audit found that the board approved a vehicle costing $34,000 for Critchlow, but a different car costing $9,000 more was bought instead, again without board approval.

— Other findings included a $240 donation to a political action committee, payment of a fine for a red-light camera ticket, scholarships that went to Critchlow’s sons and money that was collected for parking tags stuffed into a coffee can at Fox High School.

Galloway also said that in some cases, Critchlow "double-dipped" by asking to be reimbursed for items that she had bought with district credit cards.

Galloway applauded the current Fox administration for recognizing and working to correct the problems that her office found. But, she added, “not every issue can be fixed overnight. Unfortunately, the impact of some of these practices cannot be reversed.”

Fox requested the audit

The Fox school board had requested the state audit after reports of misspending by Critchlow surfaced. She left office in 2014. At that time, the auditor’s office said it thought its review could be concluded in a year, but Galloway said that time was extended because of the lengthy — ultimately unsuccessful — efforts by her office to meet with Critchlow.

Because her office agreed to perform the audit, Galloway said, her office will cover the expense.

Galloway became auditor after the death of Tom Schweich in February of last year. She said Wednesday that the change did not affect the speed with which the Fox audit was concluded.

'The recommendations outlined in the audit report will allow us to better serve our students and the entire community.' — Superintendent Jim Wipke

In a letter on the district’s website, Fox Superintendent Jim Wipke, who took over last June, said the district will “gladly and respectfully accept the recommendations presented in the audit report,” adding:

“The recommendations outlined in the audit report will allow us to better serve our students and the entire community.”

In addition, Wipke wrote, “The district, and its current administration, wish to see full restitution for any resources that were misused under previous policies and regulations. Further, the current administration will continue to provide transparency and accountability to the public on these and other matters. The current Board of Education has already mandated that changes must and will occur. This board is committed to being invested in this process and will seek continued improvement in these areas.”

Among the specific recommendations in the audit, the district agreed with practically all of them in its official response. In one case, that Fox institute an internal audit to keep closer track of spending, the district said only that it would take the recommendation under advisement.

In his letter, Wipke noted that many changes have been made since the practices detailed in the audit occurred.

“Although the current administration was not involved in the past mistakes outlined in the audit report,” he added, “the current administrative team takes full ownership and accountability for ensuring that our taxpayer dollars and all other resources are used efficiently, responsibly, and with the best interest of our students in mind.

“Further, this cabinet will continue to take every measure necessary to move forward and unite our community behind the important work our teachers and staff undertake every day: the education of our students."

The Fox school district serves more than 11,600 students in 18 schools. Its budget for the 2014-15 school year was nearly $120 million.

Follow Dale on Twitter: @dalesinger

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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