Seattle Public Schools' Confucius Riddle: Why Did District Buy Car for Non-Staffer?

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It's amazing what you learn by reading the state Auditor's reports on Seattle Public Schools. Last year, we found out that the district was running a small business program, one embroiled in a juicy financial scandal. This week, the Auditor alerts us to another little known program allegedly involved in misuse of funds.

Not that the audit lays it all out for you. Here's what the report says:

A manager of international education disregarded district purchasing procedures and used $5,000 in private grant money to purchase a vehicle for a private individual. Through the grant, the individual for whom the car was purchased provides Chinese language services to the University of Washington.

Huh? Why would SPS be buying a car for someone who doesn't even work for the district.

Asked for more information, Auditor spokesperson Mindy Chambers confers with her office's investigators and finds out that the person who got the car works for something called the Confucius Institute of the State of Washington, which is a partnership between Seattle Public Schools, the University of Washington and China's Ministry of Education.

According to the institute's website, it is one of more than 250 such facilities worldwide affiliated with a Chinese non-profit that seeks to promote the study of Chinese language and culture. Almost all of these institutes are attached to one university outside of China, institute co-director and SPS employee Karen Kodama tells Seattle Weekly. But the UW didn't want to start one on its own. So, in 2010, SPS joined in on a plan to create a unique facility that would serve K-12 schools throughout the state as well as UW.

The sponsoring organization in China sent over two individuals, one to manage each part of the program, according to Kodama. One, Deng Bo, is based at UW and one, Tang Changping, at Chief Sealth High School.

And here's where the ostensible misuse of funds comes in. The Auditor's Office says both Confucius managers got cars from SPS. Tang used a district fleet car, which might be okay given her affiliation with SPS except for the fact that she got it for her personal use--another tidbit noted cryptically in the audit.

Deng, however, is affiliated with the UW, which is why the district's fleet manager told Kodama, when she asked, that he was not entitled to an SPS car, according to Chambers. Regardless, Chambers says, Kodama got the district's accounting division to approve an allocation of $5,000 to buy Deng a car.

"It was really innocently done," Kodama says. The money for Deng's car actually came from China to support the Confucius Institute, she says. It was, however, in SPS's coffers, which to the auditor's office makes it public money. "Once we realized that, we sold the car," Kodama says.

As for Tang, she was taking over a car that been assigned to a Sealth teacher visiting from China, who preferred a bus pass instead, according to Kodama. That rationale also didn't pass muster with the Auditor's Office.

Maybe that's because the office was generally unimpressed with the district's procedures for monitoring its cars and their use. Among the findings: the district does not perform inventory procedures required by state law nor ensure that gas purchases--amounting to a whopping $800,000 last year--are reasonable.

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