When Robert “Steve” McEwin, 49, entered the courtroom Aug. 29, he looked around for an empty, socially distanced seat in the gallery. There was one left behind the prosecution’s table, and it had a welcoming sticker: Sit Here. Masked with a Texas A&M face covering, he saluted his former colleagues from the Montrose County School District central office. They had come to observe the proceedings. McEwin sat next to Superintendent Carrie Stephenson, his primary accuser. An odd bit of courthouse theater found in places where people keep up with local criminals.
McEwin was accused of felony theft and falsifying an academic credential. He pleaded guilty to class-4 felony theft and is to repay the school district and its insurers the $280,000 he stole using the district’s credit card. McEwin also lied for years about his academic credentials, claiming a PhD, because of which he was paid a higher annual salary, $102,000. The misdemeanor charge of forging an academic record was dismissed in the plea deal. McEwin also is to serve 60 days in jail, although at his sentencing Nov. 29, District Judge Keri Yoder has latitude to change that. He could face four years behind bars.
By pleading guilty, McEwin revealed he’s like many who cravenly use public money to prop up a big lifestyle. According to court documents, he bought airline tickets and hotel bookings for friends and family, purchased home improvement and personal use items from Home Depot and Walgreen’s. He even had the school district pay for the shipping of this stuff to Texas. Call it straight-up greed, call it bald-face lying. The director of technology’s scam lasted for five years.
No check, instead, handcuffs
McEwin’s last day with the school district, Dec. 11, 2020, didn’t go as he had planned.
He was on administrative leave while the district was investigating his incompetence. As the red flags started to fly, school officials were looking into his purchasing and education credentials.
Told to come into the central office by Stephenson, and bring with him proof of his PhD, McEwin was expecting his last paycheck. Instead, Stephenson handed him an envelope and inside was an invoice – for more than $120,000. The school district, Stephenson told him, wanted to be reimbursed for all those years he was overpaid.
The police officers walked in and informed McEwin his house was being searched by detectives. The smug bluster for which he was known, according to one educator, disappeared. He reportedly began to physically tremble. The jig was up.
He was arrested later at his Spring Creek home in front of his girlfriend and stepson, taken to jail and booked on a $60,000 bond. Detectives found some of the items inside the house from Home Depot. But came up empty for diplomas.
“He turned white,” said Stephenson recently in her office. “When I gave him the bill and the detectives walked in.” Montrose police found his car loaded and ready for departure. He was about to skedaddle back to Texas.
“Wearing my superintendent hat,” said Stephenson, “I’m proud that the school district and its taxpayers are getting their money back. I’m proud to associate with the people who worked long and hard to expose this fraud. Wearing my personal hat, it’s how he continually lied to colleagues. He stole from the school district and the taxpayers. He never looked me in the eye. I’m not sure how to take his (courtroom) salute.”
The courtroom appearance was the first time Stephenson had seen McEwin since his arrest. Most of the legal wrangling had been done over Zoom. After the plea deal, Stephenson accepted congratulations from her staff and others.
“I’m not sure relief is the right word,” said Stephenson. “I’m not quite there yet. There is still the sentencing. I pushed the DA that he should do time along with the restitution. I know closure is coming.”
Their association was brief. Stephenson took over the school district July 1, 2020. Early on, Stephenson conducted a listening tour of 400-plus school district personnel, teachers, supervisors. Virtually all said the school’s IT (information technology) problems was the No. 1 issue. Systems crashed, there were hacks, the IT department was a black hole where taxpayer money vanished. In this day when public education is under assault from any number of directions, the top priority wasn’t curricula, school activities, classroom size or even testing — it was IT. In the end, it wasn’t one or two whistleblowers, but hundreds.
According to the affidavit, school supervisors said McEwin was “unreliable, unhelpful, inaccessible.” One educator put it more succinctly: “he couldn’t fix anything. He wouldn’t fix anything.”
Stephenson agreed with the teacher, “I would not contradict that statement.”
On the day she suspended McEwin in October 2020, Stephenson recalled, “I asked him for his badge, key and laptop. He told me he didn’t have a school district computer. Imagine. The school system’s IT guy not having a school computer. Now that’s a red flag,” she said. McEwin used his personal computer for work.
Considering public education’s bureaucracy, this was tidy. Forced leave, termination, arrest in 22 weeks.
His hiring a ‘coup’
Then-superintendent Mark MacHale introduced McEwin to teachers and staff during the 2013-14 school year. MacHale said landing him was a “coup” (MDP, Jan. 19, 2014). That McEwin was being courted by other schools, name-dropping the Cherry Creek School District. Before relocating to Montrose, McEwin was the Director of Technology for the Salem Lutheran School in Tomball, Texas, a school of 470 students, kindergarten to eighth-grade. He was profiled in the Tomball section of the Houston Chronicle (Sept. 14, 2012), leading the students “into the integration of 21st century skills.” He was with the school for seven years, according to Chronicle reporting.
MacHale and McEwin sat down for an interview with two Press reporters after he was hired by the Montrose school district. It was noted he had a master’s degree and was working on a doctorate in educational leadership and management. MacHale and McEwin explained how Montrose and Olathe students would be benefiting from the best technology available in five years and they “were committed to ensuring local students have state-of-the-art opportunities to be successful in college or in a world of work that increasingly demands competence with current technology.”
MacHale had his own hasty and messy exodus from the district after four years. His separation agreement was rich with legalese (MDP, April 7, 2015) about how each party agreed not to sue the other, how he wasn’t welcome to apply in the future and language about neutral reference.
Stephen Schiell replaced MacHale five months later. The platitudes and bromides about the latest IT upgrade and Montrose keeping up with Front Range schools continued. McEwin told the Press (Dec. 11, 2015) that Montrose had “the best equipment and software available.”
Somewhere during these administrations, McEwin must’ve figured the school district as an easy mark. He was emboldened to grow his education into a doctorate without the bother of the classroom and testing. In doing so, he drew a higher paycheck. He did have a Colorado teacher’s certificate, said Stephenson.
“People called him Dr. McEwin,” added Stephenson. “It’s a slap in the face to those people who sacrificed time with their families, who worked hard and long and did the research necessary for their doctorate. And honestly paid for it. He went to great lengths to fabricate receipts that passed as legitimate.”
Schiell retired at the at the end of the 2019-2020 school year, wrapping up 43 years of education in Wisconsin and Colorado schools. Stephenson is a 1985 graduate of Montrose High School and received her doctorate at the University of Denver in education administration and policy studies. She’s been a teacher, principal, and school district executive for 30 years. She and her husband, an insurance professional, have two grown daughters
Five years of fraud
Six people from central office spent six weeks going through piles of receipts from 2015. “We were investigating embezzlement,” said Stephenson. “He created professional-looking receipts electronically and unless you were looking for it, the charges wouldn’t be noticed. It took us awhile, but we figured out his system.”
• There were charges on the district’s credit card to an IT company that specialized in infrastructure and systems integration. There had been repeated expenditures. Stephenson called the company and was told they didn’t do retail sales. “Okay, we’ve got something,” Stephenson told her team.
• There was a charge from Capella University. McEwin had referenced this charge as being associated with the Montrose STEM program. Trouble was, Capella didn’t offer for sale STEM-related software or curricula, Stephenson was told. During another call to Capella, she asked about his PhD credential. There was none. (In fitting irony, Capella does offer a Doctor of Philosophy in Human Behavior.) There was also an expense to a foreign company that provided dissertation assistance. “The school district’s taxpayers footed the bill for a phony dissertation he didn’t turn in,” said Stephenson.
• After McEwin was placed on leave, Jim Pavlich, director of security, and Jessica Beller, the district’s director of instructional services, took over his duties. According to the affidavit, they found iTunes cards had been purchased from the Montrose Walgreen’s during weekly visits to the store during the last two years. At $500 a pop. These were actually VISA cards, but ascribed on McEwin’s credit charges as iTunes cards, deigned to buy apps for student computers.
This is where Stephenson’s experience – and skepticism — was a factor in exposing McEwin’s swindle. She was a former principal at Sage Canyon Elementary School in Douglas County. As such, she knew that while iTunes cards were once used for buying apps, that particular program had stopped in 2017. Her team called Apple for verification.
In all, some $235,363 was rung up at Walgreen’s. His girlfriend was asked by Montrose police about his spending with VISA cards. She thought it odd, per the affidavit.
• McEwin also used his district credit card for unauthorized travel and lodging. “The airlines were very helpful in working with us,” said Stephenson. While shopping at Home Depot on the school district’s dime, he bought a compressor, a barbecue grill, a smoker. Home improvement items purchased included irrigation equipment and bathroom fixtures, according to the affidavit. Some items were shipped to an apartment in Texas. He ran up $18,000 in shipping charges with UPS. “They were helpful as well,” said Stephenson of UPS.
When the bills came, these purchases were labeled fiber optics or internet supplies. McEwin was either increasingly brazen or possibly had run out of rationale to explain charges. A pair of airline tickets charged to the card had the memo: “IT penetration team.”
McEwin’s uselessness as director of technology was a factor in his undoing.
Non-profit schools and libraries can take advantage of a federal program, E-Rate, which enables school systems to access discounts on internet services and tele-communications. The reason McEwin was placed on administrative leave, according to Stephenson, was because E-Rate had enforced a “stop” on these services to Montrose and Olathe schools.
“We had been red-lighted,” said Stephenson, “because we hadn’t paid our bill from a 2016 application.”
What was maddening, too, for the superintendent and for Colorado’s largest rural school system, was this was happening during the first year of the COVID pandemic. School systems all over the U.S. shuttered classrooms as the virus spread. Remote learning was an unprecedented learning environment. Teachers had to adapt, students had to adapt, parents had to adapt.
“When we needed it most, when we needed access to extend and develop learning, we couldn’t get it. Because of our $26,000 bill,” said Stephenson. “He would always pass it off as DMEA’s fault.” (Delta-Montrose Electric Association.)
At the start of the 2019-2020 school year, the Montrose school system was victimized by a ransomware attack which compromised records in the district’s human resources department along with financial and student data.
“It was spooky for a couple of days,” said one longtime, tenured educator about the hacked Infinite Campus software. “I came into education doing my own attendance and grades in a book. I’m not sure my younger colleagues could easily do this. Most of the teachers couldn’t believe the school system’s data wasn’t being backed up. He was never around.”
McEwin was also responsible for the school system’s IT security.
After Seth Ryan was elected district attorney last November, he told the Press that his office adheres to “victim-centered prosecutions.” There is a school busload full of victims here – almost 6,000 students, their parents, district staff and teachers, some who feel betrayed or worse, cynical. The greater public has been victimized as well. Sooner or later, local government (city or county), or a local taxing district – schools, recreation, library, fire — are going to ask voters for financial support via a referendum.
The story broke Dec. 18, 2020 in the Press. It featured excellent reporting by senior writer/assistant editor Katharhynn Heidelberg. On Page 1 that day, too, was a story with Montrose County Sheriff Gene Lillard explaining how law enforcement benefits for the greater good came from revenues generated by the county-level public safety sales tax approved by voters in 2007.
The obvious questions, of course: Why wasn’t there better vetting? Where was the due diligence – the hard questions and discoveries at the start and during his employment?
McEwin affected district-wide learning. Five-hundred bucks a week at Walgreen’s? Five years of doctoring receipts? That’s hard work and more commitment to bamboozling the taxpayers instead of working for them.
There’s video of McEwin preaching at a conference on godtube.com from 2013. He said his “Christ-centered education had converted him to the gospel of gigabytes.” He paces in front of the stage, back and forth, holding a microphone; a handful of people attend. It is a snoozer, with almost 60 minutes of blather — long on generalities, bereft of data, with McEwin spouting scripture now and then. Near the end, McEwin explained how 21st century technology could be used to catch student plagiarists. Yet when it came to his own credentials, McEwin failed to embrace one of education’s most revered commandments – thou shall not fabricate.
The hypocrite reign not, lest the people be ensnared’ — Job 34:30
“Most of the people in the central office during these school years,” said Stephenson, “are no longer with the district, either having moved on or retired. I wondered why all this wasn’t questioned earlier.”
The upshot of the theft is the school district has better accountability. Principals are now responsible for all invoices from their buildings. Supervisors are responsible for their departments. The district’s finance director reviews Stephenson’s credit charges. Gift cards have had their heyday. HR will likely go deeper with its scrutiny of applicants. McEwin was the only person authorized to purchase IT goods and services. That also has been changed.
There is some lingering damage. The school district has had to pay a company to clean the detritus, doing a deep dive into what’s working and what isn’t. The district has had to rebuild IT infrastructure, eliminating software that wasn’t compatible. It’ll cost more than $80,000. The district was able to seize McEwin’s Public Employee Retirement, $36,000, and the district’s insurance mitigates the financial impact of McEwin’s con.
Stephenson isn’t satisfied. She wants him in jail to “reflect on the choices he made.” McEwin told the judge last month he had six years of college. Given his penchant for fiction, this ought to be verified.
Stephenson was asked if there had been an apology, or contrition. She paused, “No. I never could get the truth out of him.”
Stephen Woody was the publisher of community daily newspapers for 38 years in four cities, including the Montrose Daily Press, 1997-2011.