Seattle ethics panel may handle school whistle-blower complaints
In a bold effort to restore public trust in the wake of a financial scandal, Seattle Public Schools is close to an agreement that would...
Seattle Times staff reporters
New hotline: Seattle Public Schools has established a new hotline for filing complaints about suspected ethics violations, fraud, abuse of office, or illegal conduct: 877-452-3593 or online at: www.tnwinc.com/SeattleSchools
In a bold effort to restore public trust in the wake of a financial scandal, Seattle Public Schools is close to an agreement that would put the city's watchdog agency in charge of ethics and whistle-blower investigations involving school employees.
The school district and the city's Ethics and Elections Commission have completed a memorandum of understanding intended to cover all 8,000 school-district employees, including teachers, according to district and city officials.
Many details have yet to be worked out, and the agreement is subject to approval by the School Board and the Seattle City Council.
But city and district leaders said they are excited about the proposal, which was announced at a news conference Thursday.
Interim Superintendent Susan Enfield said it won't be the only step to increase accountability, but called it a "keystone" in rebuilding trust in Seattle Public Schools.
Mayor Mike McGinn said he applauded Enfield and the school board for taking what he said was a big step, adding that the city is willing to partner with the district in other areas as well.
"What unites us is a shared commitment to the children of the city of Seattle."
And School Board President Steve Sundquist said he hopes the proposal shows that the school district is very serious about creating a culture of accountability.
"We're committed to transparency at every level of Seattle Public Schools," he said.
The agreement would place district ethics investigations in the hands of an independent agency with years of experience in such cases. It also likely would be the first time a school district in Washington has relinquished this authority.
Under the arrangement, the Ethics and Elections Commission would investigate allegations of ethics violations by district employees, complaints brought by whistle-blowers and allegations of retaliation against whistle-blowers.
The school district would continue to set its own ethics policies and determine punishment for violations.
"This is a great step on the part of the district," said Seattle City Councilmember Tim Burgess, who, as chairman of the council's education committee, brokered the deal along with Councilmember Sally Clark.
Burgess, calling schools a critical part of the city, said he is concerned that the public will unfairly link the scandal in the district's small-business contracting program to a proposed $231 million city levy for schools and families.
The council will decide in the next two weeks whether to put the levy on the November ballot. Although the city would control how the money is spent, the levy would support a number of public-school programs.
School Board Vice President Michael DeBell said he was intrigued by the idea of the city handling the district's ethics and whistle-blower investigations.
"It looks like an opportunity for us to tap into the accumulated experience of the staff in the city that have been doing it for a while," he said.
Noel Treat, the district's general counsel, and Wayne Barnett, executive director of the Ethics and Elections Commission, said Wednesday they began working on the agreement in the last two weeks.
The move follows the March 2 dismissal of the school district's superintendent and one of her chief deputies. Maria Goodloe-Johnson and Chief Financial and Operations Officer Don Kennedy were ousted for failing to adequately oversee the now-defunct small-business contracting program, which spent up to $1.8 million on projects that state auditors found to be of little or no public value.
Auditors also found that an "atmosphere of fear, intimidation and reprisal" within the district contributed to a lack of oversight of the program, which they characterized as a rogue enterprise riddled with cronyism.
District employees told auditors they were met with threats or indifference when they tried to report irregularities in the program — or didn't come forward because they were afraid of retribution or weren't aware of how to make complaints.
The auditor's report has been turned over to the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office, which is conducting a criminal investigation.
The proposed city-district agreement would be limited to ethics and whistle-blower complaints, said Treat. Allegations of illegal activities would continue to be turned over to law enforcement, he said, and complaints about poor job performance would still be handled by district administrators.
"This would not in any way undermine the authority that state agencies or law enforcement have," he said. "This is a supplement to that."
The agreement also calls for the city to provide ethics training for all school-district employees.
The hope is to have a final agreement ready to be approved by the city council and the school board by the middle of April.
Treat said he hopes the proposed agreement will help change the culture of Seattle Public Schools, by giving employees and citizens confidence that their complaints will be taken seriously, and that they will be protected from retaliation.
Barnett said the commission's independence "gives people confidence in the work we do," and has let city employees "know they have a safe place" to lodge complaints.
"Ideally, we can be that body for the school district," he said.
He said Thursday that the commission might not even tell the school district about some complaints if it felt that might taint its investigation.
The district would pay the city for the commission's services, but the amount has yet to be negotiated. Some board members hope that it might be less expensive than hiring outside investigators, as the district has done in the past.
Over the past few months, the district had already taken steps to beef up its ethics program. It designated Treat as the district's ethics officer, installed an anonymous hotline, established an ethics web page and developed procedures to investigate complaints.
The district also is in the process of strengthening its ethics policies and, under the proposed agreement, is asking the city to make recommendations about what changes should be made.
Sundquist said the district and city continue to talk about other ways that the city might assist the district as well.
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