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For 16 years, Seattle Vocational Institute, a program of Seattle Central Community College, allowed a local church to operate a day-care center rent-free on campus while getting little to no benefit in return, a state audit has found.

Under a contract with First African Methodist Episcopal Church that ran from September 1997 to June this year, SVI students were to be given enrollment priority at a day-care center the church ran from the institute’s South Jackson Street location.

In reality, few SVI students ever used the day care, the report said, and those who tried often found there was no room for their children because the slots were already taken by students from another nearby school.

First A.M.E., which closed the day care in June, paid no rent to the institute — a value the school estimates would have exceeded $650,000 over 16 years. It also paid no utilities or janitorial costs, worth an additional $158,000 or so.

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The investigation was triggered by a whistle-blower complaint to the state auditor.

Troy Niemeyer, the auditor’s whistle-blower manager, said the contract violates a section of state regulations that prohibits use of state resources for private gain.

“It amounts to the state giving money away to a nonprofit,” Niemeyer said.

The agreement between the school and the church was signed by Norwood Brooks, the institute’s executive dean at the time. He is now retired and serves on the board of the church’s MLK Center.

The church purchased the former Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School for $2.4 million three years ago with plans to create a community center, called the MLK Center.

A call to Brooks’ cellphone on Monday was not immediately returned.

Niemeyer said there’s no indication the SVI board reviewed the contract Brooks signed 16 years ago.

With around 1,400 enrolled students, SVI operates as part of Seattle Central, reporting to its president, and it falls under the Seattle Community Colleges District.

Seattle Central’s president, Paul Killpatrick, who was selected in 2010, said the head of SVI, Al Griswold, had already identified the problem contract when he, too, started in 2010 — long before the whistle-blower reported it to the state.

“We were aware of the situation. There was no quid pro quo, no benefit to SVI,” Killpatrick said.

In August 2012, SVI notified the church it would be allowed to use the space until June 2013, when it would be required to vacate. It required the church to pay utilities and janitorial costs between September 2012 and June 30, 2013, which it did.

Then, around the end of 2012, Griswold, associate vice president for workforce education, began taking steps to get out of the contract early. That was about the time the state investigation began, he said.

T. Marie Floyd, president of the board for First A.M.E.’s Child Development Center, disputes some of what’s in the report, saying she never resisted meeting with SVI. She said the institute’s students did use the center and were able to enroll their children on a first-come, first-served basis.

The day-care center, which had two other locations in Seattle and was in operation for more than 30 years, was in the process of negotiating the new rent when it lost its Head Start funding.

All three locations closed in June.

As part of a resolution plan, SVI now requires yearly ethics training for its staff.

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or On Twitter @turnbullL.

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