Silas Potter Misspent Even More Seattle Schools Money, Auditors Say

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The scandal that brought down the last Seattle schools superintendent is not quite over. Yesterday, state auditors revealed that Silas Potter, the notorious and now criminally-charged former manager previously accused of wasting $1.8 million of district money, misspent even more.

According to the auditors' report, Potter racked up another $1.3 million in questionable spending between 2005 and 2009.

Apparently, the district once trusted Potter so much that it gave him not one, but two, programs to run. The first, revealed last year by auditors to be a personal fiefdom, was a strange initiative set up to nurture minority- and woman-owned businesses (or their owners' bank accounts).

The program now under scrutiny has nothing specifically to do with minority- and woman-owned firms. Rather, it awards contracts of under $300,000 to businesses kept on a roster for that purpose, a common practice among government entities, according to Mindy Chambers, a spokesperson for the state auditor's office.

What's not so common is the exorbitant fees paid out by the programs, sometimes for services never delivered. For instance, the district paid $2,500 to one contractor for security cameras to be installed at Cleveland High School, according to the report. Auditors found no such cameras at the school.

On the other hand, Cleveland was the only school that did get some security equipment from another firm. Two problems. One, the district had paid the firm roughly $128,000 to put such equipment in several schools. Two, the equipment installed at Cleveland, according to staff, is constantly breaking down.

You might think that the district was loaded from the way Potter was handing out money. No fee seemed too high. Janitorial work at a rate of $65 an hour? Sure. It didn't matter that the going rate was less than a third of that.

The auditors hint that Potter was channeling contracts to his friends. One lavishly paid entrepreneur, when asked by the auditors how he knew of district opportunities since they weren't publicly announced, admitted that the information came directly from Potter.

Of course, the district was not loaded. Then, as now, it was under severe financial constraints. The man who should have been keeping Potter in check was Fred Stephens, then the district's facilities manger, now an administrator for the U.S. Department of Commerce. Auditors in their latest report reiterate that Stephens "did not adequately supervise" Potter.

The district, which asked for the investigation by auditors, immediately scheduled a press conference to discuss the findings. Sherry Carr, head of the school board's audit and finance committee, said in a release that the district has "worked hard to strengthen controls and oversight." Among other things, SPS has appointed an internal auditor and brought in the head of the Seattle Ethics and Election Commission to serve as the district's ethics officer.

The district has also, of course, brought in a new superintendent. This probably isn't the kind of news José Banda wishes he was dealing with as a new school year begins. But it won't cost him either. Like politicians, he can rightly say that this is someone else's mess, and proclaim that he's the guy that's going to make sure it never happens again. Next year's audit is the one he'll have to sweat.

 
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