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Originally published Friday, September 16, 2011 at 8:35 PM

Scandal's costs climb as schools hire experts

The Seattle Public Schools' troubled facilities department is being overhauled by consultants brought in under a contract that so far has cost $162,000.

Seattle Times staff reporter

quotes While the article mentions that former Seattle Public Schools' superintendent Maria Goo... Read more
quotes Also, keep in mind that Peter Maier, one of the incumbents running again, is supposed... Read more
quotes Where to start? None of this is a surprise to district watchers who have been worrie... Read more

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The Seattle Public Schools' troubled facilities department is being overhauled by consultants brought in under a contract that so far has cost $162,000.

The department has been under scrutiny since last year, when a state audit uncovered alleged fraud and mismanagement in its now defunct small-business development program. The scandal resulted in the firing of Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson.

The hiring of the consultants and the scope of their work indicate the department was more troubled than it appeared to be.

Pegi McEvoy, assistant superintendent of operations, described the consultants' mission in terms of a superhero rescue operation.

"We're fortunate to have a resource that can come in, put the cape on and help us out," said McEvoy, who was given responsibility for the department in March.

Doug Nichols, the lead consultant, was hired from Educational Service District 112, a nonprofit in Vancouver, Wash., that assists school districts across the state.

Nichols was asked to help overhaul the way the district plans for and manages its schools and facilities. He signed on in April, a day after the district announced it was eliminating the position of school facilities chief. That job had been held by William "Bill" Martin, who was promoted into it only nine months earlier.

While the district's initial consulting contract was $25,000, the scope of work quickly grew. The district extended the contract three times for varying amounts that now total $162,000, according to records obtained by The Seattle Times under the state's public records act.

Nichols and another consultant from Educational Service District 112 continue working on planning issues, and developing standards and policies for construction and maintenance. "We didn't have any capital planning policies," McEvoy said.

In one case, McEvoy said, the consultants suggested changes in building specifications that could save the district millions of dollars on future construction. They also questioned the district's use of permanent portables, saying that, in some cases, leasing the portables would be a better option for dealing with fluctuating enrollments.

Of the consultants, McEvoy said, "We asked them to fly the plane, and fix it, and by the way, could you get the parts up to the plane while we're doing this?"

Meanwhile, Martin, who had been promoted into the $142,000-a-year facilities position and then lost the job, continued working for the district for four more months.

In April, Martin described his management style as tough and results-oriented, while critics described him as abrasive and aggressive. He said problems stemmed from changes he tried to implement in the district's maintenance department.

Before Martin assumed the job in July 2010, it was held by Fred Stephens, who resigned to take a job at the U.S. Commerce Department.

After Stephens' departure, state auditors found the small-business program under his purview had spent at least $1.8 million on questionable or wasteful contracts. The resulting scandal, which included allegations of cronyism and favoritism, prompted the School Board to fire Goodloe-Johnson.

Teresa Wippel, district spokeswoman, said there are no firm plans for the facilities department, other than it will be reorganized.

"In terms of the operation for the department, Doug (Nichols) is trying to figure out what direction to go," she said.

Susan Kelleher: 206-464-2508 or skelleher@seattletimes.com

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