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Originally published Monday, August 11, 2014 at 8:25 PM

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Schools’ special-ed chief put on paid leave over consultant’s contract

The Seattle school district’s executive director of special education is on paid leave while the district investigates whether proper procedures were followed when the district hired a national consultant.

Seattle Times education reporter

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The leadership of Seattle Public School’s long-troubled special-education department is being shaken up again — this time by a district investigation into the hiring of a consultant this past spring, which has sidelined the department’s executive director.

Zakiyyah McWilliams was placed on paid leave Friday afternoon and will be out during the review, which is expected to take a few weeks, district spokeswoman Lesley Rogers said.

“This is not disciplinary,” Rogers said. “We’re reviewing activities associated with the contract process, and we place someone on paid administrative leave because it’s best for the employee and the district.”

Rogers would not elaborate on McWilliams’ involvement with the consultant’s contract. No one else has been placed on leave. McWilliams could not be reached for comment.

Deputy Superintendent Charles Wright told district staff on Monday that Wyeth Jessee, now executive director of leadership development, will be the special-education department’s interim leader.

Although temporary, the change is part of ongoing turnover in the district’s senior leadership — most recently, former Superintendent José Banda left last month for Sacramento, and a new human-resources chief, Brent Jones, arrived.

McWilliams took over the school district’s special-education department in May 2013, the eighth person to hold the top job in five years. She inherited a department already racked by troubles, and she was immediately thrust into the middle of a state order to make significant improvements or risk losing federal special-education funding.The district was required to use part of that funding to hire a national consultant to help.

In a letter to staff this past Friday, Wright said the district is looking into how the TIERS Group (Teams Intervening Early to Reach all Students) of Louisiana State University was selected in April over three other groups that applied. The contract, which ends Aug. 31, was worth almost $150,000.

“On August 5, the District learned that all proper procedures may have not been followed during the contract procurement process,” Wright wrote.

The TIERS Group, a subcontractor with a national education-consulting firm called Accelify Consulting, was in line for a second $450,000 contract for the upcoming school year, but that contract has been put on hold, according to Wright’s letter.

The TIERS Group issued a report on July 21 that identified four main problems with Seattle Public Schools’ special-education program: chaotic internal organization, poor communication, insufficient training for principals and teachers, and frequent turnover of top positions. The report echoed concerns that were earlier raised by the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, as well as many parents.

The state’s director of special education, Doug Gill, said he was told about potential problems with the original contract Thursday, but didn’t learn about McWilliams’ leave until Monday.

Gill said district officials didn’t go into detail, but he suggested that McWilliams’ job could be affected.

“There were two possibilities in terms of worst-case scenario,” he said. “One, they would have to rebid the contract, and two, it might affect [McWilliams’] status in the district.”

Mary Griffin, former president of the district’s special-education parent-teacher group, said Gill shares the blame for Seattle’s problems because he’s given the district too many chances to fix longstanding problems.

“He should have lowered the boom on the district a while ago,” she said.

“I’m sure there’s been some missteps under Zakiyyah,” she added. “But I don’t hold her totally responsible for all the dysfunction in the district because it was there when she came.”

Seattle was supposed to have its improvement plan in place by June 30. Earlier this summer, Gill gave the district a year’s extension. He said Monday that because the consultants weren’t hired until this past spring, they needed more time to help Seattle get back on track.

John Higgins: 206-464-3145 or On Twitter @jhigginsST

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