The Washington State Auditor posted a report today that alleges financial mismanagement by Seattle Public Schools was much worse than the district first let on. Last year, the auditor confirmed that the district paid $1.5 million for questionable services and another $280,000 for services it never received as part of its Regional Small Business Development Program, creating the "Pottergate scandal" that resulted both in the superintendent's termination and criminal charges against district employee Silas Potter.
But that was just the half of it.
A laundry list of questionable spending: Overcharged, unnacounted, or never delivered.
This most recent audit report, which examines a second program that was also managed by Potter from 2005 to 2009, finds that in addition to the previous $1.8 million, "Seattle School District incurred unnecessary costs of approximately $1.3 million due to a lack of adequate internal controls and supporting documentation."
The new questionable spending results from 14 vendors who received money through the school district's Small Works Program. Some examples: In one instance, the district paid $36,500 for a security system that staff estimated should only cost $5,500, which the audits describes as a "markup of 660 percent." In another case, the district paid $95,882 for demolition work at South Shore School, but when audit staff tried to interview the business proprietor about a vague invoice, the vendor refused to talk. In other cases, one vendor charged the district a 1,000 percent markup on cables, another vendor never installed cameras that were paid for, and yet another charged for cleaning at rates inflated high above market rates. "This is very serious," says Mindy Chambers, a spokeswoman for the state auditor's office, adding, "It points to some significant weaknesses in the systems the district has or had in place to ensure accountability over public resources."
So now that the superintendent is gone and Potter has been charged, who's to blame?
The School Board is trying hard to spin this story by saying appropriate safeguards are now in place to prevent a recurrence (including appointing an internal auditor and partnering with the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission). That's appreciated, but the school board should have—and could have—caught this years ago. And no one should be taking more responsibility than school board president Michael DeBell.
Why DeBell? He was overseeing district spending during critical years: DeBell was chair of the district's Audit & Finance Committee in 2006-'07, he served on the board's Operations Committee from '06-'08, and he was the board's appointee to the Building Excellence (BEX) committee that examines capital investments. All three made him uniquely positioned to spot a $3 million leak from capital investments. In 2009, the board got red flags from the "Sutor Report," which warned about problems with accountability in the small-works contracting program. It appears that DeBell was asleep at the wheel.
And while some folks—namely the Seattle Times editorial board—tend to depict a new cast of reformers elected to the school board as a bunch of children who now have a majority, the reformers aren't the problem. The biggest scandals at Seattle Public Schools happened five to seven years ago, when the supposed adults were in charge. And none of those adults should be held more accountable than DeBell.