Monday, June 06, 2011

State Opens Investigation into MLK Building Sale

 From the Seattle Times and boy, these reporters pull no punches after they explain how Bush offered 3 times the money ($9.7M leased or $3.75 purchased) as First AME church who offered $2.4M (mostly in taxpayer dollars).  The reporters lay out the oddities:

• The district staff changed the way it handled and evaluated offers for the building, which pushed the church's proposal to the head of the pack.

• Then-Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson shot down The Bush School's high offer, at the same time urging voters to pass a $48 million levy.

• One former district employee told The Seattle Times that her boss, Fred Stephens, director of the district's property division and an influential First AME congregant, was determined as early as 2007 to help the church get the school property.

• The district did little to investigate the accuracy of the church's proposal — while closely scrutinizing and ultimately rejecting a similar, competing bid from another community group.

Meanwhile, First AME made grand claims about its plans for the 1.9-acre site.

The story goes on to explain that even 7 months after the sale, First AME has just one tenant.  They have no summer school program in place, just a summer day-care program run by another agency.   The church is also backpedaling over neighborhood use of the playground, citing liability concerns.

I didn't know this but in spring 209, the Legislature had put aside $1M for a nonprofit to buy the school.  At that point, the district opened up the bidding process. 

The article also brings up issues surrounding former Facilities head, Fred Stephens. 

In early 2007, months after the school was shut, Stephens called a meeting with two employees, telling them, "We have to get that property into the hands of the church," according to Eleanor Trainor, a former capital-projects community liaison who was at the meeting.

(I remember Eleanor and she was a smart cookie.  It was loss when she left the district.)

Another familiar player comes into the mix - facilities legal counsel, Ron English.  He says he verbally asked Fred Stephens to recuse himself because of Fred's long-time ties to First AME.  Naturally, there is no record because it was face-to-face.  You would have thought English might think to do this in writing and cc someone.

English also did something the district had never done before:

In an unprecedented move, English posted the bids online for anyone to see. English then invited all the bidders to "refine" their proposals.


CCC made no changes, but First AME beefed up its proposal. It eventually included cooking classes and a computer lab, which mirrored CCC's proposal.
The CCC (Citizens for a Community Center) noted that by then several e-mails had been cc'ed to Fred Stephens.  English said the info in those emails was public so it was okay.  (If Fred was out of the loop, he should have been out of the loop and HE could find the info himself.  I'd bet that the conversation between Fred and Ron included the words from Fred, "keep me informed.")

Here's where it gets interesting for Mr. English:

The next month, English concluded that CCC and First AME, as low bidders, did not meet the requirement to provide 50 percent of the space for youth programs or social services. Therefore, The Bush School's high bid was the best choice, according to a draft analysis, which he prepared.
But Bush never got the building. English said he can't remember why.

He can't remember why?  It's his job to know why.

Then, in spring 2010, another legislator, Adam Kline, along with two others, secured another $1.5M for a non-profit to buy MLK.  So it went back to bidding except English changed the formula. 

This time, however, English went by a different formula and determined that First AME's proposal offered the most support for youth education, even though the church was the lowest bidder.
Asked by The Times how he made that call, English said some of his analysis involved guesswork. He couldn't explain how he verified the accuracy of the groups' claims of support for youth education.

Yet, English challenged the CCC proposal and held it to different standards. For example, he questioned the group about some youth programs it planned to offer — and disqualified one that included helping adults. English acknowledged he did not fact-check key components of the First AME proposal.

And this as well:
The sales agreement requires the owner to use half the property to support youth education for 40 years or risk financial penalties. English said the district does not keep tabs on property owners, such as First AME, to see if they use the buildings as promised.

What!?  If these requirements are key to the sale, and to a sale at a lower amount than the market will pay, the district should be keeping track of what happens.

This is real money.  I can't believe the Board lets this stuff happen. 

The story has over 100 comments which is a large number for any story

Thank you to Stu for this alert.

45 comments:

Anonymous said...

You know, I haven't had a vacation in 5 years other than visiting family on the East Coast and local camping. My kitchen floor has a huge hole in the linoleum (covered with Tyveck tape); the cupboards are badly in need of refinishing or replacing. We have no cable TV. We rarely eat out—anywhere. I shop at the Goodwill Outlet (great bargains if you're willing to search through the bins—wearing latex gloves and sometimes a mask)... All this so we can afford to send our daughter to private middle and High School.

Every day, our sacrifice and decision is validated when I see the sorry state of Seattle Public Schools. I want to support public education, and feel it is essential to a strong society, and I do. But I cannot support this District's administration—from downtown to the Board.

Problem is, I don't see any solutions beyond a true revolution of some kind. I am hoping this article and investigation will finally open the eyes of the general public to the very serious problems Seattle has.

SolvayGirl

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, I can believe the board let's this stuff happen, either. While attending community meetings with board members held in the wake of the Martin Floe disaster, I witnessed some of them displaying characteristics that ranged from seeming incompetence to insufferable arrogance. The board continues to wield their rubber stamps while the credibility gap between Seattle Schools and the public widens.

Wayne

suep. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Charlie Mas said...

This story - the size, the attention, and the timing - should devastate any chance the Board might have of re-election.

Thank you Seattle Times!

suep. said...

The story is significant and deserves investigation for a number of reasons, among them:

The amount of money the district lost by not selling it to the Bush School ($7.3 mil) dwarfs the amount lost in the Pottergate scandal ($1.8 mil). So if heads rolled for Pottergate, heads should roll for this too.

Fred Stephens is once again a key figure in a major scandal (why is he still working for the Comm. Dept. & Locke?)

This is yet another scandalous part of Goodloe-Johnson's legacy. Everyone should have been suspicious when she justified the sale by saying "community" is more important than cash (when did she ever care about community?). See: Maria Goodloe-Johnson, Despite Budget Shortfall, Favors Community Spirit Over Cash in Selling Martin Luther King Elementary

This is yet another failure by the current school board to question SPS admin. Instead, the board once again rubber-stamped a very bad proposal from MGJ. (And they want to be reelected?) Did a single board member ask a single question about why SPS was choosing the lowest bidder at the same time it was slashing at our kids' schools and RIFing teachers?

Meanwhile we have had ed reform leadership at SPS (including MGJ) and at the state level who have wanted to turn all the necessary tricks (charters, merit pay, union-busting) to make our state qualify for "Race to the Top" money from the Obama administration, which would only have been worth less than $100 per student, when right here with the MLK sale, MGJ and co could have wrangled $7.3 million for our district. None of this makes any sense or cents.

Where was the media when all of this was happening? This Times article is good as far as it goes, but it's more than a little late. This deal never passed the smell test and should be revoked. Where were Varner and Shaw when all this was happening?

Chris Jackins is right: SPS has a terrible history of underselling its properties.

Anonymous said...

Buried in a thread from this weekend are all kinds of interesting facts about the TFA deal, which much like this story, MUST be daylighted sooner rather than later, because the details behind the scenes here stink too.

Melissa or Charlie, can you add TFA to the key words of that thread, so that when the Times eventually picks this story up too (ha ha), they can easily connect the dots, especially regarding all the very telling UW emails you obtained?

http://www.blogger.com/comment.g?blogID=28765366&postID=5600042058263972155

I urge the rest of readers on this MLK thread to put your "investigation" hats on and read the most recent TFA stuff, too.

What would we do without this blog!

-skeptical-

KG said...

Follow the money. Check the contributors for the campaigns of DeBell, Sundquist, Carr and Maier
and one may find a connection here.

The Board is working hard on getting back the trust of the public and its employees. Cough! Cough! Cough!

Students take another shot for Central Admin.

Bird said...

Chris Jackins is right: SPS has a terrible history of underselling its properties.

Agreed, which begs the question, how do we keep this from happening again?

As with the Potter affair, I think simple promises of better oversight are not sufficient. We need some significant institutional change.

I'm not sure what that would be, but clearly we need an honest broker to vet these deals. Maybe the people (SPS) who write the criteria for the sale should not be doing the evaluation as well?

Or maybe the district should just stop selling property.

Anonymous said...

Think $4 million budget gap SPS was just informed of. Think $7 million from Bush school to buy MLK. EDM lesson anyone?

-HELLO Goodwill and private school!

Melissa Westbrook said...

I have to wonder when the Board will wake up and smell the coffee (Starbucks or otherwise).

For God's sake, how many times will the district be embarrassed by this kind of thing?

How can this district EVER get on track when it's constant issues like this one that seem to drive the conversation?

How is it, like the Martin Floe incident, that the district NEVER steps back and says, "How will this look? Does it pass the smell test? What will be our response to any feedback/blow-back?" It's like they are tone-deaf.

Charlie Mas said...

Let's say that Fred Stephens had not recused himself at all. Let's also suppose that he had rigged the bid evaluation formula so that the AME Church appeared to be the top bidder. Let's also suppose that he disclosed the contents of competing bids to AME bid writers. Finally, let's say that he unfairly discounted the value of elements in competing bids and unfairly overvalued elements in the AME Church's bid.

Had he done all of these things, he still would not be in violation of the District's Ethics Policy. That's how narrow and weak the Ethics Policy is.

someone said...

Well, this story comes as no surprise to readers of this blog - congrats on always being ahead of the curve. But it's interesting to see SPS's pet news outlet questioning them - better late than never I guess.

Clearly, things need to change on many fronts at SPS - replacing the Board is without question - I can only hope that yet another widely publicized poor Audit result will shake the leadership enough to actually DO something about it - it's clear from the comments on the Times they are losing levy votes right and left. What does it take to open their eyes that just booting MGJ out the door isn't enough?

waiting for the other other shoe to drop..

someone said...

Missed this interesting sidebar - do those of you "in the know" believe the part about how far back they can retrieve emails?

"To try to get to the bottom of the controversial sale of Martin Luther King Elementary School, The Seattle Times obtained hundreds of documents and more than 1,000 of Fred Stephens' emails from the Seattle school district. Officials said they could retrieve emails only back to January 2009.
The state auditor's staff, however, can cast a wider net. It is sweeping up and reviewing emails for School Board members, former Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson and all employees in the facilities department. The auditor's efforts do not require the district to individually review each email for possible redactions, as it did over the past two months with The Times' public-records requests"

Chris S. said...

I'm curious about the change to board policy mentioned in the article:

"The sale of MLK was the first test of a revised School Board policy, one that allowed it to sell an empty school to the low bidder if the bidder agreed to set aside at least 50 percent of the building to support youth education or social services."

When did that happen? Whose idea was it? That and the legislative money suggests an elaborate plan with a lot of players.

dan dempsey said...

"English acknowledged he did not fact-check key components of the First AME proposal."

"not fact-checking key components" is a way of life for the Seattle school board. I on several occasions did the fact checking for the school board on flawed School Board Action Reports submitted to the Board by the Administration. The net result of my work was "total disregard for the facts submitted" by at least 4 school board members on every occasion when it came time to vote on proposals.

The Board also chose to ignore Meg Diaz when it came to decision making as well.

There is an SPS tradition of ignoring evidence and choosing to do whatever "whim" dictates.

"To improve a system requires the intelligent application of relevant data."
-- thus the SPS is really short on improvement but long on spending. (Same can be said for most of what comes from Arne Duncan ... Race to the Bank .. No Vendor Left Behind.. myriad of testing that will accompany the Common Core State Standards)

-----------
HUGE CASE in POINT .... NTN $800,000 Cleveland STEM contract .... and the whole funding fiasco surrounding the Cleveland STEM option / New Student Assignment Plan.

There are so many pieces of deception in this fiasco it is hard to tell where to start in explaining the various levels of irresponsible and illegal activity.

Current School Board President Sundquist gets the "Special Recognition Award for extraordinary deception" ... He thanked the community for bringing errors made in the original approval done in February to the attention of the Board ...... He gave this thanks only after the community spent $240 to file an appeal of the Board's original approval on NTN SBAC #1. --- It took legal action to get Steve to notice facts....

Then came SBAC NTN #2 ... the one based on a document that masquerading as the original memo sent to the Board by Eric Anderson.... The School Board Action Report NTN #2 came from CAO Enfield and MGJ ... just like SBAC #1. .... In this appeal of NTN #2 as usual the documents submitted to the court as required by the appeal were never certified to be correct, this happens every time. ..... But in NTN #2 the documents submitted contained the BOGUS Anderson memo on which the School Board Action Report was based. This constitutes fraud (Class C felony forgery)... Dr. Enfield was an author of the Action Report and was the School Official that submitted the Bogus Document to the Court.

All of this was reported to the School Board, which did nothing..... in fact the Board voted 6-1 to make Enfield interim-superintendent having full knowledge of this forgery.

Charlie is absolutely correct. These four directors, Sundquist, Maier, Carr, and Martin-Morris should not be reelected. In fact they should not even be filing for reelection this week.

These four also regularly disregarded evidence and gave bogus explanations for their votes on several "rubber-stamping" approvals. "not fact-checking key components" is a way of life for the Seattle school board.

dan dempsey said...

"Officials said they could retrieve emails only back to January 2009. "

I thought state law required at least 3 years worth of emails ..... It is now June 2011.... Looks like emails need to be available back to at least June 2008. In fact why would the district toss email records at all. With providing all those laptops for Cleveland STEM are they unable to afford hard drive storage with back up for emails?

Dorothy Neville said...

Retrieving emails: this is an issue that the district is working (better late than never) to correct. Evidently emails were not saved appropriately for Public Disclosure, so until a couple years ago, we don't have good access to them. I think some, such as the superintendent and board members, were saved but not the rest. I just got something from the SAO about this (but also just got home from a week out of town, so will take a bit of time to dig it out).

Yes, I am pleased to see the ST reporting this. But they are only doing so because of the SAO investigation. They had plenty of independent information to report on the fishy nature of this sale and they make themselves look good by saying how they got all these documents and emails, but really, would they have said anything were it not for the SAO report? Seriously, would it have compromised the SAO investigation if they had written one editorial connecting this to the Pottergate folks and questioning the sale?

somneone said...

@Dorothy - thank you for the info re emails - and I TOTALLY agree that the Times should have been on this sooner - who among us is surprised it took the SAO involvement to get them going - but at least a few more people are having their eyes opened and a few more people are asking "why do these things keep happening at SPS" - whenever that happens, its a plus in my book however late it does happen.

Charlie Mas said...

I'm actually pretty happy with the timing of this story: the same week that candidates need to file for the school board election.

Maybe some of the incumbents can be discouraged from running for re-election.

mirmac1 said...

Scroll mid page for SPS' spin

Regarding emails, I have run into the same BS, including tampering with To: From: fields etc. The district is required to preserve records for the Superintendent and her "executive management team" according to the State archival requirements:

On pg 6

WV: disms

Anonymous said...

Until people wake up to the fact that there is no longer a curtain to hide their actions behind, they will continue to do stupid things, all the while thinking that the only people who will find out and/or care are the people on the Save Seattle Schools Community Blog, and a few other sources from which they are accustomed to getting flack and can simply ignore it.

You can't expect change until some individual or group of individuals get caught in an act for which they can be held criminally liable. If those people are prosecuted and found guilty, you can count on the school system "straightening up" by imposing new rules and regulations that make almost everything more difficult and time consuming to accomplish. Then, two or three years later, when the heat has died down, the hanky panky will begin again. I sure wish I could predict that a new board would make difference, but it won't.

The Favorite One

Anonymous said...

@Chris S - the Board Procedure in question was apparently adopted as modified in March of 2008 - see:

http://www.seattleschools.org/area/policies/h/H02.01.pdf

a reader

Charlie Mas said...

The Times story quickly acquired over 200 comments and a lot of them are about the Board's failure (if not their role) in this scandal.

Let's keep hammering the Board angle. The review and vote by the Board was the one and only daylighting of the transaction. The Board review of the deal was when informed and critical eyes were supposed to review it from the community's perspective. They didn't do their job.

Anonymous said...

@Chris S - also - apparently the change in policy was introduced by MGJ on March 12 2008 (with Mr. Stephens as staff person) and approved by the board on March 28th - pretty quick turnaround for a policy that could seriously impact financial gains from surplus property sales. Interesting....

--a reader --

Dorothy Neville said...

Here is an explanation of the SPS previous email record retention procedures. If I remember correctly, that has been fixed moving forward to retaining emails that should be by law retained. I don't know remember where I read that.

From FY2008 audit working papers

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
mirmac1 said...

The Secretary of State's retention schedules SHALL be followed.

Chris S. said...

Anonymous said (and it's going to be deleted):
"Wow, SPS engages in typical left wing, 'race and social justice' scamming and all the liberals here think it was Gates/TFA/Arnie Duncan who f@rted."

OK, I'll bite. My Clif notes say:
"White people making money to the detriment of poor & minority children. People of color getting assets to the detriment poor and minority children."

Sounds like equality for grownups to me.

Charlie Mas said...

Chris S. was right about the deletion of the comment. Read the rules, folks.

For me, there are two sources of humor in the anonymous post

First, the suggestion that any kind of scamming by the District is tolerated here - "left wing 'race and social justice' scamming" or any other type. It really amuses me that anyone thinks this blog is filled with District apologists.

Second, the fourth-grade timidity over writing the word "fart". As if we would censor it for being too vulgar for our delicate audience.

Actually, there's a third source - concern over the comment getting deleted for the word "fart" but no concern about the comment getting deleted for breaking our one and only rule.

Melissa Westbrook said...

Great. Now many of the comments at the Times say, "I'll never vote for a school levy again." Or "remember this in the fall when the next levy comes." The district is really making the City have to work for this money.

Jan said...

Melissa -- there was a time (not long ago) when I worried about things like the timing of District scandals and fiascos vis a vis levies. But I have to say -- I am giving up worrying about it. Not because the money is not important (maybe even critical) but because the District and the Board are simply hopeless. It's like worrying about whether Toad will crash his latest car -- when you know he is a total speed demon and a horrible driver. He WILL crash the car. Worrying is senseless.

I don't know what will happen with the Families and Education Levy (I plan to vote for it) but I have no hope left that the District won't be involved in any number of sordid mismanagement swamps between now and then. They will. They refuse to manage.

My only small consolation is that this particular steaming pile is, in fact, left over from MGJ. While I have no reason to think that any of the slimies who pulled it off (other than Mr. Stephens, MGJ and Don Kennedy) are gone, and that the ones remaining wouldn't hesitate to do it again -- it still helps a little that this is part of the OLD damage (as opposed to NEW damage that may be being created under Dr. Enfield).

SPSCombatVet said...

I am sorry, but does it make sense to anyone that Ron English just got PROMOTED? As far as I can tell, on his watch the district has lost $10 million dollars. I get he blamed his ex-boss for the last scandal, but this one is all him. And every account of him that I have ever heard is that he is so obstructionist and rude that other goverenment bodies hate to deal with him and that people leave facilities and legal to avoid his yelling fits. Why on earth does he get to keep his cuchy 100K plus a year job, let alone get more power, is beyond me.

Anonymous said...

When the Board voted to approve the sale/lease of MLK put forth by MGJ et al was there any "Nays?"

ken berry

Jan said...

Ken: from the Seattle Times comments (I haven't gone back to the Board minutes myself to verify), Kay Smith Blum and Harium Martin Morris both voted against it. The comments indicate that Harium voted against it because he favored the CCCC bid (the other community center). No one has noted why Kay's vote was 'no,' and I don't know if the minutes reflect her thinking or not.

suep. said...

Ken, according to comments on the Seattle Times story, the vote was 5-2 in favor, with Smith-Blum and Martin-Morris voting no. Can anyone here verify?

kellie said...

Smith Blum voted No because she thought that no building should be sold until the capacity issues with the NSAP were solved.

Kathy said...

Kay Smith-Blum did not want to sell the property- capacity concerns.

Harium wanted the sale to go to CCC.

All other board members voted "yes" to First AME,

WenD said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

To those of you deriding the Times and lauding this blog for "breaking" this story, get real. Melissa wrote in March, "I don't have time to work on this one but there's something there." The Times had the resources, took the time, and here it is. The constant Times-bashing on this site, much of it from one particularly arrogant former school-board candidate, is tiresome, unfair and unproductive.

Tina

observer said...

Interesting that no mention has been made that MGJ was a member of the AME Church, and that her husband was associated with it in his ministry training.

Melissa Westbrook said...

"The constant Times-bashing on this site, much of it from one particularly arrogant former school-board candidate, is tiresome, unfair and unproductive."

I know Linda Shaw and Lynne Varner and like and respect them. I sometimes pass info onto to them in hopes that something might get written. That I sometimes find their work late or lacking, well, it's mostly true.

I have often stated that other people, like Chris Jackins, the quiet but firm district watchdog who was here long before me, raised issues on this one.

The Times is nearly always late to the party. There are people who raise the red flags to both the Times and the Board and nothing happens until they decide it's important. Sorry but it's true.

Chris S. said...

sue P. Yes, check the board meeting minutes 10/20/10

Jan said...

Tina: It is always nice to hear the other side -- and get pushback, but your comment is not entirely fair. First -- the ST has far, far more resources than Melissa has. Second, several folks, not just Melissa, commented on how irregular it all seemed at the time. The ST is not stupid. A school is fast tracked for sale (no other building has ever been sold in this time framework, and many are not sold at all, but leased long-term -- KSB's point). It is sold to the lowest bidder, who buys it using NOT their own funds, but taxpayer dollars donated by the State. The facilities guy is a member of the church who gets it at a steal -- as are the Superintendent (evidently) and her husband. The complaints by the the other community group (CCC) fall on deaf ears. The winning bidder was given access to the other community group's bid, so they could "gussy their bid" up to match it.

And NONE of this turned at HAIR at the ST -- UNTIL the SAO decided to audit the deal for irregularities. And you are concerned that we are not all bowing and scraping gratefully at the ST's feet for exposing this? It would NEVER have been looked at, but for the audit.

Yes, I am happy they finally covered it. No, I am not impressed by the timing, or by the fact that it took an SAO audit to get it covered.

I don't think they have covered it well at all -- MGJ's and her spouse's involvement with the church; the fact that in 2008 (after the school closed, but before the bidding process commenced) Stephens may have authored the changes to the policy that used to require sales to the highest bidder, which had the effect of permitting his church to come in, submit a weak, cheap, flabby, unsubstantiated bid that cost the District millions, has never benefited a single child (since the church has reneged on every program promise), and has benefited NO ONE except the church itself.

emeraldkity said...

Yes, I am happy they finally covered it. No, I am not impressed by the timing, or by the fact that it took an SAO audit to get it covered.
Precisely.
& re Ron English? He has practiced CYA for years, even before he came to SSD ( & I expect even before he was at Wppss).

StopTFA said...

ST, when are you going to write about the incestuous relationship between the UW College of Education and Teach for America? How the UW and its program (only for TFA, mind you) will likely get the pass from PESB despite its inferiority to existing programs at area universities. How UW grad students are getting the shaft. How SPS will be on the hook for $$$ for mentor teachers and subsitutes (unless Gates coughs up the dough).

Know yerself out.