State Auditor Finds Meddling Over School Building Sale From Unexpected Corners

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The state Auditor's Office yesterday put the kabosh on long-simmering rumors that Fred Stephens, a former Seattle Schools manager who now works for the U.S. Department of Commerce, used his influence to get the district to sell a surplussed school to his own church. The auditor's 16-page report found "no evidence" that Stephens was involved.

Nope, it was others doing the meddling.

The report makes for some strange reading, revealing the sale of Martin Luther King Elementary to be a highly politicized affair. The findings follow months of investigation sparked by calls that came in to the auditor's "citizen hotline" in the wake of a financial scandal related to a renegade department supervised by Stephens.

MLK Elementary is located in the Central District, near the Bush school, an affluent private school that wanted to turn the district's property into soccer fields. Bush was prepared to pay $3.75 million, and a whopping $9.7 million for a long-term lease.

It was a potentially sweet deal. An appraisal earlier in the year had valued the elementary at only $2.6 million. None of the other bidders--including the First AME Church and a community group-- came close to matching Bush' offer.

The district's selection committee wanted to hand the elementary over to Bush, according to the auditor's report.

Then, according to the report, several legislators started pushing the district to look at other issues besides money, saying the vacated property should be used for the "community at large." The report doesn't name the legislators, but Mindy Chambers of the Auditor's Office says they are longtime House Speaker Frank Chopp, Senator Adam Kline, Rep. Eric Pettigrew, and Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, all but Chopp representing central or south Seattle.

After a meeting with legislators, the district's lobbyist, Clifford Traisman, wrote an e-mail to then School Board President Michael DeBell, then Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson and other district staff. "We cannot go Bush, at least not now," Traisman wrote.

The process dragged on. The district, wanting to see if the bidders besides Bush could include more community use in their offers, asked them to resubmit their offers not once but twice. In the end, then district property manager and deputy counsel Ron English still wanted to sell to Bush.

Goodloe-Johnson rejected that recommendation, English and another senior staffer told investigators. The superintendent wanted to sell to First AME.

What was Goodloe-Johnson's reasoning? The report doesn't go into that. DeBell, now board vice-president, tells SW that the superintendent "didn't necessarily share her full thinking." Nor does DeBell recall Goodloe-Johnson--a famously bad communicator-- even telling the board that she disagreed with her staff on the issue.

As presented to a board committee by English, the "staff" recommendation was to sell to First AME, but English, according to the auditor's report, was so opposed that he couldn't bring himself to read it out loud.

The board ultimately went along with that recommendation in October 2010. First AME, using state grants, bought MLK for $2.4 million. That price falls within legal guidelines, which require that school buildings be sold for no less than 90 percent of the appraised value, according to the auditor's report.

DeBell defends the decision despite all the dissent and meddling revealed in the report. "I made up my own mind independently," he says. Before selling MLK, the district had sold four other vacated buildings to community groups under a model that requires the groups to use the buildings for a public purpose at least 50 percent of the time. They had all proved successful, he says, and he wanted the same for MLK.

First AME is now required to follow that model. Although the church didn't follow through for months on promised youth services onsite, it now has a community center running there with free access to the gym, according to the district.

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