Seattle's School Board forced to depend on superintendent's honesty
Do you know who gets the least pay and among the least staff support in the Seattle School District? Maybe you'd guess janitors. Or food-service workers. But it's actually the ones in charge, the members of the School Board, who are supposed to be watchdogging a $560 million-a-year business on no salary and two assistants.
Seattle Times staff columnist
Some readers have written in to say The Seattle Times is hyping the Seattle schools scandal. That the schools chief shouldn't be blamed, let alone fired, for what was low-level cronyism.
"Why is this immediately a story about whether the public servant with arguably the hardest, most thankless job in Seattle, Maria Goodloe-Johnson, should lose her job?" one reader wondered.
It's a fair question. It's made more pressing by the top-line finding of an independent investigator that essentially cleared Goodloe-Johnson of any involvement in, or knowledge of, how a $1 million-a-year minority business program went so wrong.
So why should the School Board show her the door anyway?
All you really need to know is contained in one e-mail, dated Jan. 15, 2009. Two of Goodloe-Johnson's top managers, Chief Financial Officer Don Kennedy and executive facilities director Fred Stephens, are discussing what to do about a bad report showing this same small-business program was rife with problems. Mind you, this is from two years ago.
"The other consideration is with regards to next week's executive session," Stephens' e-mail reads, referring to a meeting of the School Board. "If I understood you correctly, you and the Supt. didn't want us to hand out the report."
Those italics are mine. Apparently everyone understood everyone correctly. Because that embarrassing report was never handed out.
My sense is the School Board is more upset about this — that the superintendent and her staff may have hidden things from them — than about all the wasted money, lost opportunity and bad publicity put together.
It also suggests something that needs to be fixed about the way the Seattle School District is run.
Do you know who gets the least pay and among the least staff support in the entire operation? Maybe you'd guess janitors. Or food-service workers. But it's actually the ones in charge, who are supposed to be watchdogging a $560 million-a-year business.
School Board members work for per diem only — a max of $4,800 a year. The seven-member board has just two helpers, who mostly do scheduling and office support.
"The way it's set up, the board is almost totally dependent on the superintendent's staff to give them honest information," says Dick Lilly, who was on Seattle's board from 2001 to 2005. "Because of that, what's in that e-mail, alone, is cause for firing."
Since there is no pay, some School Board members keep their day jobs. It's while moonlighting that they try to oversee an enterprise about two-thirds the size of Seattle city government.
Is it any wonder the School Board seems to suffer, at times, from "an abundant lack of curiosity," as I wrote in my last column? They probably are suffering from an abundant lack of sleep.
This is not to feel sorry for them. OK, maybe a little. I'm not saying that if they got six-figure salaries like the City Council then all would be magically right with Seattle schools.
But how about hiring them an analyst or two, so they can have a chance of knowing what they're doing? Or more to the point, what the bureaucracy they're supposed to be watchdogging is doing?
A reader forwarded me a "job announcement" recently that sums it up. The School Board is seeking a professional accountant and auditor, in light of the recent scandal, to help them vet the "internal financial and governance controls of the Seattle Public Schools."
The position is for two years. The pay?
"This is a volunteer position and compensation and benefits will not be provided," the ad says.
So figure this: At the same time the School Board is reduced to begging to fulfill one of its core duties, it has learned that this troubled program in the district not only had some of its activities shielded from the board but was allowed to grow to five full-time, paid employees.
During a hiring freeze.
It's enough to make you want to fire someone.
Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Danny Westneat
Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to email@example.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
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