With a Seattle School Board election two weeks away and an interim superintendent trying to earn a permanent job, Tuesday's announcement of charges against Silas Potter Jr. and two others came with high stakes for Seattle Public Schools officials.
Seattle Public Schools officials hope the theft charges announced Tuesday will end an ugly chapter in school-district history and restore public trust in their ability to handle taxpayer money.
“We at the school district are accountable to the public, and we take that very seriously,” said Interim Superintendent Susan Enfield, whose appointment as leader of the state’s largest school district is one piece of the fallout from the scandal surrounding the alleged theft.
Enfield joined King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg and School Board Vice President Michael DeBell at a news conference announcing the charges, which accuse former district employee Silas Potter Jr. and two co-defendants of stealing $251,000 from the district’s Regional Small Business Development Program.
Overall, $1.8 million in contracts awarded through the now-defunct program may not have benefited the public, according to a February state audit.
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In response to the audit, the board fired Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson and Chief Financial Officer Don Kennedy.
The district now is attempting to recover its financial losses. It has hired a lawyer to explore the feasibility of a lawsuit, but the money may be difficult to recover because Potter and the others involved apparently don’t have a lot of assets, School Board President Steve Sundquist said.
The role of district officials at Tuesday’s media event was to outline changes the district has made in the past year to prevent such abuses in the future.
Among the reforms, the district has increased its internal auditing staff from one to three, set up an ethics hotline for employees to report potential problems and contracted with the city of Seattle’s ethics office to work together on investigations, DeBell said.
The district also has added more oversight to its contracting policies and scheduled quarterly oversight sessions in which board members examine various district departments.
“It adds up to a pretty big change,” DeBell said after the news conference. “I hope that people understand that we’ve made a pretty sincere and long-term effort to make proactive changes so this can’t happen again.”
Maybe the biggest change has been in personnel. In addition to the Goodloe-Johnson and Kennedy firings, many managers in the facilities and capital-projects departments have left the district. They have been replaced by a mix of new faces and internal replacements.
Several are in their positions on an interim basis but are interested in staying on full time. That includes Enfield, who served as chief academic officer before becoming interim superintendent.
And, with ballots already being cast in a School Board election, a lot is riding on public perception.
All four challengers in the board races have used the scandal to argue that the incumbents should go.
“This reminds us why the School Board incumbents, up for re-election, should be held accountable for their negligence in their legally mandated oversight of district finances and management,” District 6 challenger Marty McLaren said after the charges were announced.
Asked if the criminal charges and policy changes will restore public confidence in the district, DeBell, who is not up for re-election this year, said, “I certainly hope so. That’s up to the citizens.”
Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195