Seattle Public Schools Faces State Investigation Into Sale of MLK Elementary to Well-Connected Church

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From the start, Seattle Public Schools' sale of vacated Martin Luther King Elementary to a low-bidding church seemed odd, even more so when it came out that a district administrator implicated in the district's recent financial scandal had close ties to that church. Now the state Auditor's Office is investigating a possible conflict of interest, according to today's Seattle Times.

The church in question is the First AME, a longtime Central Area institution and fixture in the African-American community. As we reported in March, former facilities director Fred Stephens was not only a member of the church, his father was once its pastor. Stephens' responsibilities at the district also included supervising Silas Potter, the man who turned the small-business contracting program into a personal fiefdom and source of easy money. Stephens now works for the U.S. Commerce Department.

SPS board member Michael DeBell told Seattle Weekly in March that Stephens recused himself from the decision-making over MLK Elementary. But that was after Stephens had already made his feelings known. Reports the Times:

In early 2007, months after the school was shut, Stephens called a meeting with two employees, telling them, "We have to get that property into the hands of the church."

This, despite the fact that the private Bush School was willing to pay several times as much as First AME, and the district desperately needed the money. DeBell told the Weekly that the district is not only interested in money but in preserving its properties for community uses, as it has done with vacated schools in the University District, Phinney Ridge, and West Seattle.

But seven months after the sale of MLK Elementary, the Times reports that the community isn't getting much use out of the school. What's more, First AME hadn't done the legwork necessary to do what it promised, such as coordinating with the city's parks and recreation department to create youth programs.

Ironically, then-superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson, who was all about the "data," didn't look closely enough at the facts when it counted.

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