- Associated Press - Monday, July 20, 2015

MCPHERSON, Kan. (AP) - Officials at a central Kansas school district insist there is no connection between the timing of a top administrator’s firing over misused funds and an election seeking to increase the district’s local option budget.

New state Education Commissioner Randy Watson was in his final month as superintendent of the McPherson School District when an unusual purchase was brought to his attention in June. He said he requested a special audit to investigate a purchase card used by all in the district’s administration, the Topeka Capital-Journal (https://bit.ly/1fXRUEK ) reported.

That same month, the district asked voters in a mail-in election to give its Board of Education the authority to raise the local option budget to 33 percent. Watson had warned that failing to pass the increase would result in the loss of four or five staff members.

By mid-June, the investigation into the misused funds focused on associate superintendent Chris Ruder, according to Mark Crawford, who replaced Watson as superintendent.

Ruder, who had been a finalist for the McPherson superintendent’s position, admitted on June 19 that he had made personal charges on a district credit card, Crawford said. Ruder reimbursed the district roughly $684 and has since been asked to pay back an additional $4,192, which Crawford described as “further restitution.”

School board members were told of the investigation of Ruder during a closed session on June 22, a day before the election ended, Crawford said.

Watson suspended Ruder - whose salary was nearly $104,000 - with pay the next day, pending further action by the board. The suspension came hours after the district posted a congratulatory message on its Facebook page hailing the election results, which showed 63 percent in favor of increasing the LOB.

The school board met again in closed session on June 29 to accept Ruder’s resignation. Reached by phone on Friday, Ruder declined to comment.

Watson declined to provide more detail about Ruder’s alleged conduct, such as the number and time frame of the purchases, citing the ongoing police investigation.

Watson, Crawford and a board of education member all said the timing of the district’s actions and the LOB election weren’t related.

Watson indicated the timing had more to do with his own impending departure. Crawford, in a statement, denied knowledge of the investigation had been concealed.

Pam Lawson, who served on the school board until her term ended in July, said she had no knowledge of any problems before the LOB election and said nobody was trying to hide anything.

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Information from: The Topeka (Kan.) Capital-Journal, https://www.cjonline.com

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