The eyebrow-raising sale of a Seattle elementary school to a local church prompts one of those "what now?" meetings between school, state and church officials. Heaven help us all.
The eyebrow-raising sale of a Seattle elementary school to a church raises the stakes for a Thursday meeting between school, state and church officials from mere due diligence to “what now?”
“At this point, I don’t have a clear understanding of whether or not the church will be able to fulfill the covenants in the purchase agreement,” said School Board member Michael DeBell. He hastened to couch his uncertainty as not a lack of faith in one of Seattle’s oldest religious institutions, First African Methodist Episcopal Church, but rather a lack of evidence they’ve made enough progress on the building they purchased last fall.
Heaven help us.
Seven months after the School Board voted to sell the former Martin Luther King Elementary School, a Seattle Times story reports the church has lined up just one tenant for the building: itself. Certainly, its Head Start administrative offices and a summer day-care program are not the robust community hub the School Board envisioned.
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State auditors are looking for evidence of malfeasance, cronyism or other explanation for why the board passed up the advice of its own facilities manager and a more-lucrative bid in order to put King in the hands of First AME.
Seattle Public Schools is one of the largest property owners in the region and so attention rightly turns to its real-estate deals.
A district so financially strapped it can’t provide summer school should have leapt at the highest bidder, even if it was a tony private school. Revenue from property deals can’t pay for a teacher or other operational costs, but it can dig into the district’s mountain-sized deferred-maintenance backlog.
King was the final building in a five-school parcel recently spun off by the district and, inarguably, it is the most contentious deal of the lot. University Heights Elementary is now home to Broadway Bound, a theater group that has worked with Rainier Beach High School; John B. Allen Elementary is now owned by the Phinney Neighborhood Association; Crown Hill Elementary has morphed into Small Faces Child Development Center, and Fauntleroy Elementary School in West Seattle is now a community center. A mix of state and local money helped broker all of the deals.
So what made the King transaction so compromised from the start? The proverbial fix, says Chanin Kelly-Rae, who served on the city’s School Use Advisory Committee, created to determine the best use for King. While some questioned the possible influence of Fred Stephens, director of the district’s property division and an influential First AME congregant, Bush’s proposal seemed without a doubt the best on the table.
“We’d all decided that The Bush School looked like the best option after reviewing all of the proposals submitted,” Kelly-Rae said. She said the unanimous agreement was not only because of Bush’s higher bid, but its promise of athletic playfields in sync with community needs.
Ron English, a district lawyer who oversaw the bidding process, concurred and recommended his bosses pick Bush. The only competition, everyone thought, was a bid by a community group backed by state legislators, including Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, D-Seattle, and House Speaker Frank Chopp.
But how tightly constructed was the fix that not even the savvy lawmakers saw it coming?
And now English, so certain Bush was a better choice, must go into Thursday’s meeting determined to make the lesser choice work. A lot of people, from School Board members up for re-election in the fall to a church protective of its reputation, are praying First AME can pull this deal together.
I wouldn’t count the church out. And the district is unlikely to take back a sold property. But the appearance of cronyism has drained away my sense of community altruism. This arrangement may just work but it has come at a high cost for the district: a loss of fundamental trust and credibility.
Lynne K. Varner’s column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org