Disqus

Thursday, February 24, 2011

What Did They Know and When Did They Know It?

Those over 45 will recognize the question. We have a number of people to ask about: the superintendent, the COO, Director of Facilities, the Board, and the Seattle Times.

The answers are pretty sad. It turns out that just about all of them knew a whole lot and they knew it a long time ago.

The Superintendent knew about the program, she knew what it cost, and she knew what it did. She is on the record praising it, which means that she reviewed it. She gave Mr. Potter an endorsement for his spin-off non-profit. She was fully informed. It is very likely that she will claim to have known nothing about it. It won't be credible, but even if it were, that would even more damning. The program was identified as a problem in the 2009 budget. Didn't she claim that she follows up closely on these audit exceptions? Is she telling us that she didn't know where the District was spending a million dollars a year? In a capital budget that didn't have money for needed repairs in schools, how could there be a million dollars a year for this project? Isn't prioritizing the spending her job? She needs to go. Everyone accountable - including her. Her immediate resignation would be good; her immediate dismissal would be better.

The COO knew even more about the program. The District claims that 80% of the spending is on teaching and learning, so $1 million a year is a bigger part of the money he's supposed to be watching and prioritizing. He thought it was more important to spend a million on this than on school building repairs. In addition, the problems in the program were specifically mentioned in the 2009 audit. He was supposed to have been watching it closely. He claimed that he was watching it closely on more than one occassion (following the 2009 audit and the 2010 audit). He absolutely needs to go. The internal auditor, in his resignation letter to Mr. Kennedy, wrote "I believe that you are using these claims to hide the fact that you deceived the school board by not letting them know of the early warnings that I have provided." Mr. Nderu claimed that he warned top administrators and the school board that they weren't providing sufficient oversight and that the district was inappropriately using money from its capital levies for a program designed to help small businesses compete for government contracts. Everyone accountable - especially Mr. Kennedy. He should not be allowed the option to resign; he needs to be fired so it appears that way on his work history.

The Board knew about the program and they knew what it cost. Don't they have a responsibility to set spending priorities? The Board has ultimate responsibility around audits. After this program was cited in the 2009 audit the Board should have been following up on it closely, but they don't follow up on anything. They had repeated warnings from the state auditor and their own internal auditor. The four Board members up for election in the fall should all simply choose not to run. That would be the most gracious exit and the one that we should allow them. If they refuse to go quietly, however, their repeated failures to demand any kind of accountability at all, their repeated failure to follow up on any audit exceptions, their poor choices in budget priorities, and their repeated failure to represent the interests of the community should be the centerpiece of their opponents' campaigns.

We have cause to believe that the Seattle Times knew about this at least as early as July when the 2010 audit was released. We know for certain that they knew about it in December when the internal auditor quit/got fired. Melissa was writing about this mess all through the summer, fall and winter and we know that Times staff reads this blog. They knew. When you read the Times story about the internal auditor's resignation it is so full of passive voice and so empty of names that it is an obvious effort to bury the facts. This is from a story dated December 7, 2010:
In letters to Nderu, which Nderu shared with The Times, the district alleges, among other things, that he told a district employee to deposit a $35,000 check into the account of a nonprofit organization, rather than the district's own accounts, where it should have gone. The nonprofit was a new group formed to provide training services that the district once offered.
That's how we can be certain that Linda Shaw knew about this in December. Yet Silas Potter's name never appeared in the paper. The Times didn't write about the program or the mismanagement represented by these failures of oversight - even after the problems were identified by the state auditor. The Times sat on the story.

31 comments:

Mr. Edelman said...

Well said. Well done.

Brita said...

This is a very sad and sorry situation. As Board president at the time, I was very proud of our new policy on Historically Underutilized Businesses (am pretty sure it was a unanimous vote). The idea was that since we raise taxes here, it would be great if at least some of the money for building remodels could go back into the community by encouraging local businesses to bid (competitively). Because the projects were so huge ($93 M for Roosevelt, more for Garfield), we were getting very few bids, all from large companies, often out of state. Mary Bass brought us the concept that large jobs could be subdivided so that small local businesses could bid on them. The staff and large contractors raised no objections, and started implementing the policy. Staff (before Fred Stephens I think) returned to the board and told us that they were getting very few local bids and thought the local firms (sometimes a 1 or 2-person outfit) needed help understanding the process, the paperwork, and the timelines. They planned to offer some workshops for potential bidders. I got the impression these might be offered 2-3 times a year but can't document that. In any case, the research on this blog and now reported in the Seattle Times shows that this wonderful concept took on a life of its own. I still believe in using money locally, and cannot fathom how this program needed to involve more than a few hours and a few photocopies of materials. Trying to figure out what I could have done differently. Brita

anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bird said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
anonymous said...

Thank you Brita, for shedding light on why and how the concept of training small businesses came about. It sounds like it was a reasonable idea, especially since it was proposed before the fiscal crisis that our schools are facing currently. My guess is it probably would have worked fine, if run conservatively, and managed appropriately. Unfortunately neither of those two things happened.

How this program could have been allowed to go on for so long, with such little oversight, while sucking so much money away from our schools, is beyond me. And all of this during a time of financial crisis in SPS, where teachers are being rif'd, buildings are in disrepair, parents are paying over $200 a month for kindergarten, high school college counselors have been done away with, and transportation has been cut back to a bare minimum. Just shocking.

You are right, Brita, this is a very sad and sorry situation.

Bird said...

So, I can't help but notice that a lot of these folks that were paid by Potter are associated with important community organizations.

It's entirely possible that Potter was slipping them some SPS money for his own personal gain down the line, but it would not be unreasonable to investigate whether enriching these community leaders was meant to further the district's larger agenda.

I notice some of the touched organizations were part of the Our Schools Coalition, for instance.

Even if this wasn't some larger conspiracy to win support from these organizations for SPS initiatives, the fact that the district and the Alliance wanted their favor would at the very least make them reluctant to daylight everything that was going on.

It's difficult to say whether that had similar play for the Seattle Times or not, but it is a thread worth following when trying to unravel they whys and wherefores of this very bizarre story.

WV: prewar

Melissa Westbrook said...

Thanks Brita. Yes, I know that Mary Bass started this with the best of intentions. It IS important to be able to help smaller companies understand how to do business with SPS; it's good for both sides.

Then it morphed out of control.

My sources tell me that people DID know about the whistleblower program but knew it would come back and hurt them. Some DID say something and paid for it. I believe Noel Treat has the best of intentions but he's new and probably would not be able to protect anyone.

Charlie states it pretty well; it is almost impossible for people up the foodchain to say they didn't know or couldn't have known. All you have to do is look at the pricetag and wonder what is going on.

I'm sure the Board is waiting for their own investigation to be finished and they have some real soul-searching to do.

seattle citizen said...

Bird,

I agree that the connections between Potter, some of the contractors, the people asked/hired (I'm still unclear: did presenters get paid to teach these classes?), people paid to testify before the legislature...there are people amonst these who also are involved in various and sundry local "community" coalitions, et al.

When Our Schools popped up to throw its "survey" at the media (then became moribund: its website hasn't been updated in a year or so), one notes that it was comprised almost entitely of minority organizations and a few business organizations.

What are the connections between individuals who benefited (materially or in other ways) and the "reform" movement?

One is the use of minority groups as "community": When one needs to argue that "reform" must happen, it often seems directed at poor non-whites (don't see a lot of agitation for "reform" in predominantly white, poor rural areas). These minority groups, in turn, sometimes lend their name/votes/whatever to the "reform" cause. So what sort of deal-making, career-enhancing, quid pro quo is going on that connects "reform" to this scandal we see today?

I'd like to see a chart like...Sue? did for "Reform" that includes all the individuals in the city that benefit from community/gov't/district connections, and how those individuals might fit into the "reform" chart.

Anonymous said...

So the meme for you lot will not be this is the fault of a good old fashioned 'diversity' program created years ago by entrenched leftists in the SPS, but it's the fault of 'reformers', or should we say half-assed reformers like MGJ.

Well I hope you succeed in pushing her out because the way things are shifting politically in Seattle and the nation, we may actually get a real reformer in at the SPS, one who'd stop these very kinds of wasteful 'diversity' programs.

joanna said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
joanna said...

Is there a reason that you left Fred Stephens and Ron English out of the original post? They both seemed even closer to the details. I know Fred is already gone, but he should be named as at fault. Ron English certainly was aware, right?

Yes, Brita thank you for the post on the intent.

Charlie Mas said...

I left Fred Stephens out because he is beyond accountability by the District.

Ron English, on the other hand, can be held accountable, but his role is too ambiguous for me to write about.

Melissa Westbrook said...

Yes, people got paid to teach the classes. I found out that Ron English, a lawyer for the district, taught a class but it appears he didn't get paid any extra beyond his salary to do so. But some people were paid for teaching those classes.

Mr. English probably did absolutely nothing illegal. He probably did what he was directed to do. But he's been around the district a long time and he has eyes.

I did ring up the Department of Commerce media department. I left a message with a young woman who told me it was unlikely they would have a comment to make but would pass the message on.

Melissa Westbrook said...

Sorry, in case you didn't get that reference to the Department of Commerce, Fred Stephens works there now.

Kparent said...

As a parent with a kindergartener in a west Seattle school that is overcapacity and has to rely on the PTA for curriculum materials and all enrichment, I'm outraged. Being new to this, I thought I'd give leadership the benefit of the doubt but you guys had it right all along. How we got to this sorry state is baffling.
As liberal as I am, I'm outraged that the district was spending money on something so far afield from it's mission of educating CHILDREN! I am all for supporting minority businesses, but why didn't anyone stop and ask is this the role of a school district?

joanna said...

Maybe I should have posted on this thread. No, Ron English was not a member of the AME Church.
http://dl.dropbox.com/u/3923020/SilasPotter/SutorReport001.pdf
He, however, was one who received the email dated Jan. 12, 2009 from the Sutor Group outlining many of the problems with the program and then later the same year is listed as an instructor in the Small Business Training September 2009-December2009.

You are not asserting that Don Kennedy did anything illegal, just that he should have known and done something about it. Is that not also true for Ron English.

He is a lawyer and was very close to Fred Stephens in facilities and all land use and facility decisions. Who would understand better than he?

saddened said...

I'm guessing some of this has been mentioned but had to write this because it will continue to be additionally troubling. ALL the powers that be HAD knew of the problem while never mentioning it during:
1. negotiating the new SEA contract
2. when no confidence vote happened still endorsed MGJ "awarding" her a contract extension
3. promoting and pushing the Levy in November.
4. projecting next school year's $36 mil shortfall...

Sheesh...(only clean word I can think of).

Also, there's NO WAY Enfield knew NOTHING!

joanna said...

Yes, Fred was Chief of Staff for Gary Locke when Gary was Governor of WA. Now he works for Gary Locke at the US Dept. of Commerce. In between jobs with Locke he worked for the Seattle School District.

Anonymous said...

yes this stuff is all wrong, but, isn't it just part of the Seattle culture of don't rock the boat, go along get along, don't ask questions cuz you won't be nice, don't ask for answers cuz you won't be nice? shut the frack up?

this region is really really small, economically - if you're not 1 of the 8 figure ++ early birds of Microsoft or Amazon, if you're not a weyerhauser or boeing pooh-bah, if you didn't get into Starbucks when it 5 stores outside Pike Place Market ... if you're not 1 of the anointed or 1 of the lucky, AND, you're ambitious, you have to move to L.A. or D.C. or Chicago or N.Y.C. or Boston or San Fransisco -

so who is left?

Don't rock the boaters. Enjoy the ride! Keep your head down cuz when the scythe of re-org comes zooming through the cubes, let the big mouth 2 aisles over get it! The big mouth tries to get things done! The big mouth asks questions with yes or no answers! The big mouth is watching the clock and the calendar!

Compared to what people steal in other parts of the country, our thieving and our public "accountability" looks like keystone kops cleaning up Mayberry, RFD.

Sadly, the most likely outcome is some underpaid underlings will go under the bus for this Alfred E Newman Affair.

Sound And Fury

mirmac1 said...

Did you see that the Seattle Times changed the headline from the screamer "Financial Scandal hits Seattle Schools" to (yawn)"Seattle Public Schools spending targeted in criminal probe"

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

Thank you, Charlie.

Brita, as much as legally possible, I hope you'll update on what you find. Thanks for your post as well.

Citizen: Interesting point on ties between community groups and Reform. My take: the achievement gap or opportunity gap has morphed into an opportunity for fraud.

Case in point: TFA can't prove that their unqualified corps are solving the achievement gap, but they bank on it, to the point of implying that anyone who questions them is a racist.

A con is a con, and Silas Potter, whatever his prior history or intentions, became a con. It's possible that the Seattle Way made his scam possible. Most of us tend not to question anyone who claims to operate for fairness and equity.

It's been commented on the blog that people within SPS knew what he was up to, but it was political death to say anything. The Times reported that Stephens took action to limit what he could do as far as writing contracts but Potter continued to run his scam. Until it blew up.

Did he operate as long as he did thanks to HR polioy, MGJ's lack of oversight, or cronyism? If last year's no-confidence vote is an indication, the majority of SPS's people don't trust MGJ and her adinistration. Any investigation will automatically be tainted unless it's conducted by a team outisde SPS and Seattle "culture." That includes all the boosters, from the Times to James Bible.

Reform Inc. looks like a con, at least to me, because they have little proof of success over the institutions they seek to replace.
A con artist uses whatever social engineering opportunites are available to make it work. Seattle is easy pickings. The district is big, it has money and a long commitment to equity, and yet, SPS is still called out for inequity. It would seem that honest leadership rather than political leaderhip would extinguish this enduring criticism.

Given her performance, MGJ is a con. She's had the full support of the usual community players in her achivements except she hasn't really achieved what she takes credit for doing. If you want to go there, into the mud of racial inequity, real and imagined, she actually hurt minority children when the forced half the Lowell cohort to Thurgood Marshall. The kids that needed funding lost their funding. On paper, the school suddenly became high-achieving. What's she done to West Seattle is another thread and another discussion, but the facts are there.

We live in a world where the truth can be right in front of us, and we keep dithering about things that either don't exist, or situations that have easy solutions.

Achievement, for all children, can be solved with attention and time. Reformers don't want to pay for people. Look at Wisconsin. People make the difference, but snap, they have to be paid, so isn't it easier to demonize people and call for replacements?

In this ridiculous climate of calling out injustice where it doesn't exist, while ignoring injusyice and abuse that is allowed to festere right in front of us, cons like Silas Potter will flourish. And so will MGJ, Broad, everyone who drums up PR with the right people to run the same old scam, rinse and repeat.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
SPS Alumna and Mom said...

I am glad that a former Board member stepped up to explain how this program ever ended up in SPS' purview, but I have to agree with Kparent that small business development is not/should not be part of the district's mission. They should never have spent one dime on these workshops. Not even for photocopies! And while we are certainly in a crisis mode now, the district was never so flush with money that this type of non-school-related spending could be justified.

mirmac1 said...

So let me try posting this again, without the live link.

Kparent, if you are as appalled as the rest of us, considering signing this petition pushing for MGJ's ouster.

http://www.petitiononline.com/NC_MGJ/petition.html
(cut and paste in browser)

Charlie Mas said...

When HUB started it was just a purpose statement, not a $1 million program. That growth all happened while Dr. Goodloe-Johnson was in charge.

seattle citizen said...

I'm still wondering about this Small Business Development Program: Did it, it's trainers, or its clientele, or its paid lobbyists to Oly, have anything to do with such entities as the Our Schools Coalition? LEV? A4E?

When I note that Mr Kelly of the Urban League was paid to go lobby in Oly by SBDP, and that the Urban League is also one of the members of the Our Schools Coalition, I wonder. I'm sure there are other relational connections to be made betwixt and between players. Like it's said, it's all about relationship (though in schools they mean forming a meaningful one with students; with the edu-business and edu-reformers, it's more about relationship as networking.

Speaking of OSC, they have a new addition to their website, after a year or so. In January, evidently, they post this OUR SCHOOLS COALITION
A Case Study: The Impact of Organized Community Involvement in
Teacher Contract Negotiations in Seattle Public Schools, 2010


Fascinating read. Who knew Steve Sundquist briefed OSC on the new contract in September? Also good to know their plans for the future, "next steps"...

Charlie Mas said...

I have word from someone inside the District that Ron English was also among those who knew about this scam and facilitated it.

Charlie Mas said...

Now the Seattle Times reports that Ron English knew about the scam.

He needs to go away now.

Even if he was not directly involved, he knew about it and took no action. Didn't Ron English know about the whistle-blower protection policy? Of course he did. Even if Ron English feared for his job, he should have reported the problem. He's a lawyer, an officer of the Court, and his professional ethics hold him to a higher standard. He didn't meet that higher standard.

Anonymous said...

I read in today's paper how Michael DeBell is "outraged". He has had plenty to be "outraged" about over the past two years. Really, what does it take to get these people to stop doing business as usual. The whole thing is very discouraging. I'd love to see a school board that gets outraged over test scores of children in our system who are of color or who have disabilities. And now they have to find a scapegoat. The whole board should go. Then again, who would want that job in the first place.

Discouraged parent

Inside as well said...

Charlie:

English's conduct goes far beyond just knowing about it. He actively TOLD others to keep their (proverbial) mouths shut or else.

So did other managers, and are still doing so. The atmosphere of fear is being stoked every day on the inside so that much of the story has not yet been told.

For English to now try to say he was only following orders is absurd.

The allegations about being told that to criticize Potter was "racist" is something that comes from MGJ herself, who has said the same thing to others any time they took issue with any of her inner circle who happened to be minority.

It stinks and should be over, now!

LEAVE,LEAVE,LEAVE!!!!!!!!!!!!!