The State Auditor’s Office has issued a report on Seattle Public Schools’ sale of an old school to a well-connected church last year; passing up on millions of dollars by not selling the property to the highest bidder.
In February of this year, the First African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) officially purchased the former Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School property in the Madison Valley neighborhood of Seattle for $2.4-million. The district chose this deal, while passing up on an offer from the private Bush School, the highest bidder, of $9.7 million.
The Auditor found the district did not violate any laws or policies in the complicated transaction. The report also exonerates the district’s former Executive Director of Facilities, Fred Stephens, who had been accused of using his influence as a church member to get his employer to sell to the church.
The audit untangles who pressured the district to make the controversial sale and how it unfolded. It shows that at least three members of the legislature urged the school district to pass on the lucrative offer from The Bush School, in favor of selling to a community group. To help a community group purchase the property the legislature appropriated $2.5 million of state funds for use by a non-profit to buy the property. The non-profit ended up being the AME church.
The report also shows that some district officials were prepared to sell the property to The Bush School on at least three separate occasions, because it would garner the most for the cash-strapped school system. Yet those officials were shot down by higher ups, including former Superintendent Marie Goodloe-Johnson.
The State Auditor found the school district’s Property Manager was against the sale to the lowest bidder from the beginning. In one example, the Property Manager urged top district officials on August 24, 2010 to sell to the Bush School. The answer was no.
“The Property Manager and the General Counsel (current Deputy Superintendent) told us in separate interviews the Property Manager’s recommendation to the Superintendent was to sell the property to the Bush School, the highest bidder. The Property Manager and General Counsel (current Deputy Superintendent) stated the Superintendent rejected that recommendation. They said that after further discussion about which proposal to accept, the Superintendent wanted to sell the property to First AME Church,” writes the State Auditor.
According to the audit, former Superintendent Goodloe-Johnson could not remember which recommendation came out of the meeting.
The auditor found the district was pressured by their legislative lobbyist. In an email dated April 16, 2010 the Property Manager expressed reservations with a plan to open up the bidding process for the property again, when the district hadn't recieved any directive from the legislature to do so.
According to the report: "The Director of Policy and Government Relations responded to this email saying that she agreed with the Property Manager “100%.” The lobbyist responded to her saying 'what are u talking about? We got exactly what we wanted.'”
The Seattle School Board fired Goodloe-Johnson in March for her lack of oversight in a district program riddled with financial problems. In February the State Auditor found the manager of the program, meant to help minority-owned businesses win school district construction projects, misspent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on services that were never provided.