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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Press Conference About SPS Accountability Measures

This morning I attended the joint press conference between City representatives and district representatives who announced that the district will now be using Seattle's Ethics and Elections Commission (SEEC) services for complaints of violations of SPS ethics policy as well as retaliation complaints for those who do speak out.

Good lineup;  for the City, the Mayor, Tim Burgess, Wayne Barnett, Executive Director of SEEC, Robert Mahon, SEEC Chair.  For the district, Susan Enfield, Noel Treat and Steve Sundquist.   There were folks from all the tv stations as well as print/radio reporters.   The two state auditors assigned to SPS were also there.

There were brief remarks from Enfield, the Mayor, Burgess and Sundquist.   Enfield stated that the City had "expert" services and their program is highly regarded.  She said it was not all they were doing to restore accountability but that it was a "keystone" step.   Sundquist said that they wanted to avoid the expense of creating the district's own program and thanked the City for extending the hand of partnership.  Mayor McGinn pointed out that the City and the district "serve the same families and communities" and that the City stands ready to be a full partner.  Burgess said the City and the district share the same goal of every child in every school in every neighborhood getting a good education.

The signed MOU is detailed in what they will do but not how.  Apparently much of that is to come when they have a completed agreement by the end of April.
 


Q&A Highlights
  • I asked Dr. Enfield if senior management was getting a different charge going forward than the rest of the staff since those in management do have power over the lower-level employees.  She said yes and she would be reaching out to them personally.  
  • I asked Mr. Barnett if his office would be informing the district when they had a case before them.  He said, "That remains to be seen."  He said in cases that may involve upper management, they might not go to the district initially so as to protect the whistleblower.  (It was pointed out to me that they also have to iron out the issue of the district promising to hand over any and all information requested without any further information on why.  Otherwise, it defeats the independence of the SEEC to investigate if the district gets suspicious on any particular case.)
  • The question was asked if Dr. Enfield was receiving any information about issues.  She said she had received some candid e-mails and a high volume but nothing specific to any whistle-blower issue.
  • Steve was asked if the SEEC would be looking into Pottergate.  He said no, both the Board and the State Auditor had completed their investigations and that it had been turned over to the King County prosecutor.  (Steve also pointed out that the district is very grateful to Mr. Satterberg for clearing his calendar and seeing district leadership when they called for help.)
  • The Mayor was asked if this is a first step for the City to move to take over the district.  He said that would be a mischaracterization and that the City was just moving to help the district.
  • The Mayor was asked who suggested this idea and the answer was Councilpersons Clark and Burgess.
  • A suggestion was made that this was done in protection of blowback from the scandal to the Families and Education levy.   The Mayor said no, that the Superintendent and Board had been talking with the City about possible help and none of the discussion was about the F&E levy.  He pointed out that it was a City levy and the funds and programs were not directed or controlled by the district.  He said he couldn't speculate as to any outcomes to the levy.
  • The issue of Pottergate came up again and Mr. Barnett said that if any new information did come forward, they would, of course, investigate.  
  • Mr. Barnett was asked to speak on work the SEEC has done.  He mentioned an incident where the Fire Department had found that funds had been misdirected and a firefighter had lost his job and the money was returned.  This was from a whistle-blower incident. 
  • There will be a liaison between the District and the City but it is not known who it will be.
  • The City will have some role in monitoring how SPS ethics policies are being implemented but it was not spelled out how that would happen.  
  • There's quite the tortured paragraph in the MOU about paying for this.  Basically, the City can't lose money on this effort and the district wants to spend as little as possible.  Makes sense.  
  • It is also not clear if the SEEC will get involved with any issues that come in on the SPS hotline (which is the same one used as the Port Commission - it is a clear line that cannot see the phone number the call is coming from).
I feel this is a sincere effort on all sides.  I would like to think that an SPS employee who doesn't trust anyone in the building would feel safer in reporting issues to the City.  This effort creates an outlet for such a person. 

16 comments:

Chris S. said...

Melissa, your question for Dr. Enfield was an excellent one. The cynic in me had the same reaction - this is not necessarily going change the environment of fear and intimidation within the Stanford Center, which was probably not limited to Potter & Stephens & MGJ. Her answer is somewhat reassuring.

Greg Linden said...

Using an independent group, the Seattle's Ethics and Elections Commission, as an outlet for whistle blowers seems like a great idea, a quick and immediately effective solution to a thorny problem. Kudos to those who worked to set this up.

Steve said...

I found it strange to read about an SPS meeting involving local leadership that didn't leave me feeling that someone was up to something, pushing an agenda without transparency, or exercising power without any accountability. A refreshing and encouraging start.

Central Mom said...

Thumbs up.

seattle citizen said...

@Steve,
I, too, find it refreshing. The only feeling I got "that someone was up to something" is that the two councilmembers, Tim Burgess and Sally Clark, are both "members" of the Our Schools Coalition, which was/is the pseudo-coalition, the astroturfer, put together by the Alliance for the sole purpose of publishing their biased survey to change public opinion about educators before contract negotiations. OSC was/is Strategies 360, a PR group the district has just (re?)hired to do PR work. This is the same survey where the district gave the names and phone numbers of district families and employees to somebody, who gave them to S360, uh, OSC, which was illegal. S360/OSC changed its survey methodology three times (some "research," eh?): It first said it got the names from SPS, then said it got them from SPS and King Co. voters rolls after it was pointed out that they appeared to be working with the district to do an ostensibly neutral survey right before contract negotiations, and it wsa changed to its present form, omitting any info about where it got names of people to survey.

Also members of S360, uh, OSC, are the Urban League and Tabor 100, Central Area Motivation Program, and perhaps others who were involved in Pottergate.

The Alliance, of course, is also a member of S360/OSC.

Time Burgess was the first politician to join S360/OSC.

In light of Pottergate, and the concerns about money being spread around (The last superintendent paid the Alliance an $80,000 Superintendent's Personal Services Contract), it would be ethical and right for both councilmembers to drop their affiliation with the S360/OSC. Otherwise, it's just more PR.

While they're at it, they can drop affiliation with any of these "coalitions" and "leagues" and "alliances": They work for me, not for Gates/Broad/Walton/Duncan, who fund these groups.

seattle citizen said...

@Steve,
I, too, find it refreshing. The only feeling I got "that someone was up to something" is that the two councilmembers, Tim Burgess and Sally Clark, are both "members" of the Our Schools Coalition, which was/is the pseudo-coalition, the astroturfer, put together by the Alliance for the sole purpose of publishing their biased survey to change public opinion about educators before contract negotiations. OSC was/is Strategies 360, a PR group the district has just (re?)hired to do PR work. This is the same survey where the district gave the names and phone numbers of district families and employees to somebody, who gave them to S360, uh, OSC, which was illegal. S360/OSC changed its survey methodology three times (some "research," eh?): It first said it got the names from SPS, then said it got them from SPS and King Co. voters rolls after it was pointed out that they appeared to be working with the district to do an ostensibly neutral survey right before contract negotiations, and it wsa changed to its present form, omitting any info about where it got names of people to survey.

Also members of S360, uh, OSC, are the Urban League and Tabor 100, Central Area Motivation Program, and perhaps others who were involved in Pottergate.

The Alliance, of course, is also a member of S360/OSC.

Time Burgess was the first politician to join S360/OSC.

In light of Pottergate, and the concerns about money being spread around (The last superintendent paid the Alliance an $80,000 Superintendent's Personal Services Contract), it would be ethical and right for both councilmembers to drop their affiliation with the S360/OSC. Otherwise, it's just more PR.

While they're at it, they can drop affiliation with any of these "coalitions" and "leagues" and "alliances": They work for me, not for Gates/Broad/Walton/Duncan, who fund these groups.

Anonymous said...

Hey, Cool!

The Times didn't just print the press release. They must've learned their lesson.

Mr. Ed

joanna said...

I wish I could cheer. However, doubts expressed by others regarding the effectiveness of this idea reflect much of my thinking. I fear that it will simply add another layer protect the facts from public scrunity, another meeting to find, and more people who might be trying to protect their private interests and those of their friends. I wish I believed that they will be concerned with just the facts and ensuring real transparency and ethics.

Melissa Westbrook said...

At this point, I trust the City more than the district.

mirmac1 said...

Speaking from experience, I think this is an improvement from the current expensive outsourcing of "ethical review."

Anonymous said...

Are the salaries / pay of all public employees PUBLICLY available anywhere?

IF they are, THEN the pay and salaries of ALL the outside groups involved in education public policy should be PUBLICLY available - like on their web site, instead of buried in 990's that are a year or two or three behind.

Anyone remember the NCTQ thing from last year - there are another 13 or 14 people at NCTQ getting paid how much to influence the district?

Public Is Only Public When Convenient

The Real Arnold said...

"IF they are, THEN the pay and salaries of ALL the outside groups involved in education public policy should be PUBLICLY available - like on their web site, instead of buried in 990's that are a year or two or three behind."

One little problem - those are not public agencies. They are private. They don't have to give you that information.

Melissa Westbrook said...

Yes, all public employees salaries are out there for the public to view. You'd have to search (depending on the agency) but they have to have them out.

bikie_parent said...

I'm sorry, am I the only one here that works at a place where ethics is taken seriously by everyone, where folks can talk to their direct and upper management without fear of reprisal, where there is an open door policy, where doing the job is the norm and conflicts and back-stabbing are abnormal problems to be solved?
I think to address the immediate issues, sure, get the Seattle Ethics Commission involved. That is looking at what happened in the past. But if ethics training is not part of the culture then all you have is a better cop on the beat. You haven't solved the problem.
The problem is:
1) people can't be asked about their ethical issues, the questioner get bullied or side-stepped.
2) There isn't a watchdog that cares about the issues (Why would Enfield not be this person?)
3) In the current scandal, the head counsel of SPS can't be trusted to look into ethics problems?

How does any of this change with outside overview of violations? How would unethical behavior be changed? District staff would still live and work in a catch-me-if-you-can culture.
Ethics needs to come from within, as all you parents understand.

Jan said...

bikie_parent -- you are so right. I think they need to start with a well-written, anonymous survey to get a sense of exactly what the issues are, what departments people think are most infected, etc.

Then, Dr. Enfield needs to lead an effort to clean house -- swiftly and decisively. Bullying, intimidation, threats, withholding of information, etc -- all of these things need to be addressed in performance reviews, and those who won't change need to be exited from the organization. But in the meantime, having the City's commission available certainly seems to beat having NOTHING available, which is where we seem to be now.

mirmac1 said...

The absolute first step is to rewrite/update the flabby Ethics policy. Here it is, essentially:

"It is the policy of the Seattle School Board that no school district employee may have an interest, financial or otherwise, or engage in a business or transaction or incur an obligation of any nature, that is in conflict with the proper discharge of the school district employee’s official duties."

So, a senior manager can break a law and still not be in violation of district ethics policy. Doesn't matter who is reviewing an alleged violation, if it doesn't break the letter of the policy then everything will come up hunky-dory.