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Originally published Saturday, February 26, 2011 at 8:14 PM

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Danny Westneat

Westneat: School administration's culture creates these scandals

The Seattle Schools scandal is a perfect storm of district neuroses. It was born of political correctness. Nurtured by lax management. Prolonged by timidity about race. It calls out for a top-to-bottom cultural change in the school administration and maybe even the School Board.

Seattle Times staff columnist

At first glance, the latest Seattle school scandal may seem too puny, too penny ante, to bring down the district power structure.

But it's about to.

Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson is as good as gone. So should be one of her top two lieutenants, the chief financial officer, Don Kennedy.

I wouldn't be surprised if, in the long run, this ends up taking down some School Board members as well.

Why? At root, the story's not directly about them. It's about a mostly unknown staffer, a guy some co-workers considered a con man who struggled to pay his taxes and child support, yet gets put in charge of a program for minority- and women-owned businesses and then runs amok with it.

A couple million bucks gets dubiously spent. About $250,000 of that is believed to have been outright fleeced. This is bad, but, over four years, it's also less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the Seattle Schools budget. It's not the type of big-dollar corruption that usually tarnishes the top brass.

As Goodloe-Johnson told one investigator: It was happening "too far down." So far down she didn't know a thing about it, and therefore isn't responsible.

Oops. Wrong answer.

Kennedy, the CFO, said that even in hindsight, and even though the troubled program with all its red flags was in his department, he wouldn't have done a thing differently.

Really wrong answer.

It's never the wrongdoing that gets you. What matters is how you deal with it.

That part was a comic spectacle. All the bosses said it was somebody else's fault. That somebody — the reputed con man at the end of this line of shrugging, pointing bosses — was gone out of state.

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This scandal is also a perfect storm of Seattle school neuroses. It was born of political correctness. Nurtured by lax management. Prolonged by timidity about race.

The program, launched to bring racial equity to construction hiring, was considered "untouchable," employees told investigators. Questioning it, even when it went so off-track it was giving free classes to pet groomers and hairstylists, could get you branded a racist.

The first thing I wondered when I heard there might be fraud in a school-district program to teach adults how to better run their businesses was: Why did we even have such a program? Isn't it the school district's job to teach kids?

I know — that question seems moot, now. But the issue of priorities matters going forward. The district keeps crying poverty, and, as a parent with two kids in its schools, my inclination is to be first in line to vote them whatever money they need.

But now we find they've been paying private instructors up to $300 an hour to teach private business owners how to use Microsoft Word. At the same time, they're saying they don't have enough money to teach actual kids.

The other reason this little scandal may cause a big housecleaning is that the School Board — in charge of this circus — was at times kept in the dark.

There's no surer way to anger the bosses than to have them surprised by bad news.

Now on that last point, the School Board has seemed to suffer from an abundant lack of curiosity. There was in fact somebody warning board members about all this. You know those parents who show up at every School Board meeting, who seem half-crazed because nobody listens as they clamor that district management is arrogant, bloated and unaccountable?

Well, they were right. Not always polite, but right. Maybe in the future the School Board might fill this skeptical role. Or be replaced themselves.

The last time I wrote about Seattle schools bureaucracy — a few months ago when the district inexplicably jammed 200 more kids into Garfield High School than the building was designed to hold — I mentioned how maddening it is to be a parent in this district.

It's not the teachers, the classes or the schools. They do OK at what is the hard part in all this — educating the kids.

No, what this district too often flunks is the easy part. It's the adults down at headquarters. Time and again, it's with them that all hell breaks loose.

So, sure, let's get rid of the super and the CFO. Only we've done that before and it didn't turn out to be enough.

It feels like there's got to be a top-to-bottom cultural change or we'll be showing the next super the door in a few years as well.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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