ARNOLD • State auditors began their investigation this week into the Fox School District, a query sparked in part by questionable purchases on credit cards.
“We know we have improprieties,” said John Brazeal, the district’s new chief financial officer.
The extent of those improprieties remains under review, and the district is continuing its own inquiry separate from the state. Already, the district has begun recouping money and property. Files erased from employee computers have been recovered. And Brazeal is taking a hard look at past credit card purchases, including money spent at restaurants and a Florida conference.
The district requested the audit after finding financial transactions “that appear to be of a personal nature rather than for a district purpose,” unauthorized rates of compensation, misuse of district property, possibly illegal transactions, destruction of physical and electronic records and irregularities related to the issuance of the most recent general obligation bonds and disposition of the bond funds, according to a memo Brazeal wrote to the School Board.
The district has come under fire since May when nasty comments on a Topix website about district critics were traced to the home of former Superintendent Dianne Critchlow and her husband, Jamie Critchlow, and to the homes of other administrators.
Critchlow, 48, agreed in June to retire but denied she had made the comments or done anything wrong. Her husband was fired, and other administrators were reprimanded.
Critchlow’s settlement agreement outlined timelines for returning district property, including a district-provided Ford Expedition, which she did return and the district probably will sell, Brazeal said.
“Some of the things we knew about, some we didn’t,” Brazeal said of district property returned from the Critchlow house.
Recovered items include an airbrush paint machine, three cameras, two iPad Air tablets, as well as multiple phone and iPad cases.
Also returned were a tow strap, tow chain, four turnbuckles and heavy-duty skidding tongs for hauling logs.
Jamie and Dianne Critchlow in April set up a limited liability company called Cash Landing LLC. They registered it with the secretary of state’s office and described the company’s purpose as “land and timber improvement/sales, education consultation services, invention development and sales.”
‘POLICY IS POLICY’
District officials knew they were missing cameras valued at hundreds of dollars.
Interim Superintendent Tim Crutchley sent an email Sept. 4 to the Yahoo address Jamie and Dianne Critchlow share, asking for a Nikon camera with a telephoto lens bought in 2011.
Dianne Critchlow responded by email asking if anyone had checked certain district cabinets and a shelf, and said she’d look, too. She added that it could be in her personal camcorder bag.
“Trust me, I have no reason to keep anything that is district property. Is there anything else you have not located?” she wrote in an email sent the same day.
Crutchley responded that the camera was not in her former office. About an hour later, Critchlow sent another email saying she had found cameras at her home.
“It was all there in back of hall closet. Had no idea since I haven’t used them,” she wrote.
The district also has recouped $240 that Dianne Critchlow contributed to the Better Schools for Missouri political action committee using a district credit card on Sept. 25, 2013.
The group, which this year contributed predominantly to Democratic candidates, returned the contribution, saying in a letter that “public funds for political purposes is prohibited under Missouri law.”
Brazeal plans to seek reimbursement for a hotel stay last year at a conference in Orlando, Fla. Six couples went — nine Fox administrators and three spouses.
In February 2013, Critchlow booked a room at $1,000 a night for four nights at the Hard Rock Hotel, Brazeal said. When she arrived at the hotel in June, she got a cheaper room — about $550 a night.
Her four-night hotel stay cost $2,208.
The five other rooms cost a total of $6,834, Brazeal said.
At one meal, Dianne Critchlow insisted on paying for the dinners of nonemployee spouses, one employee told Brazeal. That employee, Stacey Dockery, director of Fox special education services, later paid the district $54.81 to cover two of her husband’s meals. Jeremy Donald, now the head of the Bridges program after Critchlow’s husband was fired, wrote a check for the same amount to cover his wife, Brazeal said, and later paid $1,500 to cover all the expenses of the trip.
Brazeal pointed to the district’s travel policy that allows $110 a night for hotels.
He said that dollar amount might be too low. But he added that administrators should have gone to the board to ask for a revision.
Brazeal said he will seek reimbursement for the difference between $110 and what was spent each night.
“As far as I’m concerned, policy prevails,” he said. “Policy is policy and we’re not going to violate it.”
Dianne Critchlow has not been sent a bill, nor has she repaid the district for any expenses. Brazeal wants to avoid a piecemeal approach to such a process.
DINING ON THE DISTRICT
Restaurant meals accounted for a significant portion of some administrators’ credit card use, some for hundreds of dollars at a time and others for a few bucks for fast food. According to a Post-Dispatch review:
• Dianne Critchlow spent at least $3,708 of district money at restaurants between July 20, 2013, and June 6 this year, including while on medical and administrative leave.
• Twenty-three of the 34 charges made by Mark McCutchen, the district’s former chief financial officer, between July 24, 2013, and May 22 this year were at restaurants, a total of about $1,171.
• Lorenzo Rizzi, assistant superintendent, used his card five times between July 20, 2013, and Jan. 31 this year, for a total of $988. That includes a $739.50 bill on Jan. 28 at Pomodoro’s, an Arnold pasta and sandwich restaurant that also does catering. It includes three other restaurants and a $36 charge at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport.
• Almost half of the purchases, or $1,089, that Assistant Superintendent Andy Arbeitman charged to his card between July 20, 2013, and April 26 of this year were at restaurants.
Critchlow has said she can explain each and every charge and says the district has receipts and written explanations.
“She has a credible explanation for anything we’ve asked her about,” said her attorney, Chet Pleban. He said he was certain the state audit would prove the Critchlows had done nothing wrong.
Efforts to reach McCutchen, who retired in May, were unsuccessful. Rizzi and Arbeitman did not return messages seeking comment in time for the print edition of this story, but both called the Post-Dispatch on Wednesday morning to explain the charges.
"I have nothing to hide, "Arbeitman said, saying he attended nine conferences in last year and only two were all-expenses paid.
He said a $219 bill at Weber's Front Row was for a monthly lunch meeting of Jefferson County superintendents and funded with dues from area scohols. He said a $502 charge at Panera Bread Co. was for lunch for more than 50 staff members during a day-long curriculum meeting stemming from Common Core requirements.
A small charge at Burker King was during a Missouri Association of School Business Officials at Lake of the Ozarks for a meal that wasn't provided at the conference.
Rizzi also wanted to stress that he had done nothing wrong. He said a $739 charge at Pomodoro's was for about 115 staff members to award Fox High School teachers for having the highest attendance rate in the district.
He also other charges at Bellacino's and 54th Street Grill and Bar were for staff meetings and professional development.
Brazeal has tightened the district’s credit card use. Assistant superintendents, department heads and the board secretary no longer get cards. The only people who do are Brazeal, a few Family and Consumer Sciences teachers who need to buy perishable items for class and a custodian who handles purchases needed at the last minute.
There’s more to investigate, including shuffling of money from a bond issue, possibly to cover deficit spending, and depleted reserve funds.
“We have more investigating to do,” Brazeal said. “It’s a dang shame and a challenge that we’re having to do this.”