The financial scandal at Seattle Public Schools, concerning a program to help minority contractors land jobs with the District, broke in The Seattle Times Wednesday morning, catching the District by surprise. Board president Steve Sundquist says the board's own confidential investigations were meant to culminate in public disclosure and discussion on March 7. Instead the Times got a hold of the story a little before the investigation by a private attorney, hired by the board, had quite completed her work. Sundquist adds that he doesn't think the early breaking of the story jeopardized the fact-finding. Already the top interviews, with the District's chief financial officer and Supt. Maria Goodloe-Johnson, had taken place, he says.
No one is pooh-poohing the story, despite the relatively small amount of allegedly misspent funds ($1.8 million). Most people I spoke to call it "extremely serious," an indication that the investigation will implicate higher-up figures in the rather loosely run current administration. Nor was anyone shifting blame to a previous board, though that's when the program was hatched (in 2006), at a time when the board was intent on addressing all manner of racial equity issues.
Nina Shapiro in Seattle Weekly usefully explores the origins of the program, and the roles played by former board members Mary Bass and Brita Butler-Wall. Shapiro rightly asks why a school district, facing serious budget problems, would be dabbling in programs to help minority contractors learn how to bid better.
Another development in the story is the report by Seattlepi.com of some of the vendors who received payments from the program, including the Urban League, and prominent figures Charles Rolland, Velma Veloria, Eddie Rye, and Tony Orange. Some of the vendors reply in this Seattle Times story, claiming that they performed the work called for. With names like those, highly regarded figures in Seattle's minority communities, one senses just how explosive this story could become.
Still more potentially damaging is news in a new Seattle Times report that the District had been warned more than two years ago about problems with this program, and took partial steps to limit the autonomy of Silas Potter, Jr., the former program manager who has now gone missing. The narrative developing here is that the program was in early trouble but the District largely looked the other way, perhaps due to the political sensitivity of the issues; and that those who knew of the problems felt intimidated by the District's "loyalist" culture.
The State Auditor's office was tipped to the problems, by the District, on June 28, 2010. Its report does not run the line of responsibility up into the higher levels of the administration. But that would seem to be a line being pursued by the current School Board, which decided to hire a private lawyer to study the whole scandal, not informing the district of the investigation until late in the process.
I asked board president Steve Sundquist why the district wasn't alerted until the final interviews with the top brass, and he replied that this was the recommendation of Patricia Eakes, the attorney hired for the probe. Only when Eakes was ready to interview the very top officials did Sundquist call and tell them what was happening and why. He said he fully expected to get phone calls earlier, once the investigator was nosing around, "but I never got asked." The board's decision to run its own probe this way might suggest at least a suspicion of higher involvement and a growing lack of confidence in the superintendent.
From here, the story will play out this way. The board will receive investigator Eakes' final report in executive session on Friday, and make it public within a few days. On Tuesday it will consider matters in executive session, examining the two streams of the Auditor's report and the Eakes' investigation and the course of corrective action it might take. The first public meeting on the matter will be next Wednesday. Complicating all the hurry-up is the fact that the story broke this week, which is spring break, meaning many officials and board members were out of town.