The Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission is looking into the use of a gym at a second Seattle school after an investigation found potential misuse of funds by a school principal. Parents are criticizing the school district's decision not to promptly reveal the findings of the first investigation.
The Seattle school district’s commitment to transparency is being questioned by some parents — and a superintendent finalist — after the district chose not to promptly reveal that an elementary-school principal might have misused school funds and improperly rented out the gymnasium to a sports organization.
The complaints came as officials disclosed they’re also investigating the use of a gym at another Seattle school by the same organization, Seattle Select Sports.
A nearly yearlong investigation by the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, completed March 5, found $30,000 in unexplained cash withdrawals from an unauthorized Van Asselt Elementary School bank account. Investigators said sloppy record-keeping prevented them from fully knowing how the money was spent.
The findings led district officials to place Principal ElDoris Turner, a 40-year employee, on administrative leave last month (she retired two days later), fire school parent coordinator Ramona Fuentes on Tuesday and ask the Seattle Police Department to investigate.
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But the district did not announce the ethics investigation’s findings until The Seattle Times obtained them Wednesday.
Officials have emphasized openness since a February 2011 state audit found financial mismanagement in the district’s minority-contracting program, and they’ve pointed to a new partnership with the city ethics commission as evidence. The Van Asselt probe represents the first major investigation through that partnership, which is costing the district $125,000 a year.
“The district is spending a lot of money on this ethics agreement with the city,” said Dorothy Neville, an activist whose children graduated from Seattle Public Schools. “They made big press when they announced it, so I think it should have made big press when it came to a resolution.”
The city investigation at Van Asselt on Beacon Hill began last spring after parents and teachers raised concerns about a bank account, maintained by Turner and Fuentes, that held proceeds from fundraisers and other gifts to the school.
The investigation found large cash withdrawals over an 18-month period ending in June 2011. While the investigation could not fully determine how the money was spent, it “could not rule out the possibility that some of these funds were converted to personal use.”
“Clearly, Fuentes and Turner grossly deviated from the standard of care and competence expected of public employees dealing with public funds,” the investigation found.
Neither Turner nor Fuentes could be reached for comment.
The investigation also raised questions about the use of the school gym by Seattle Select Sports, run by school-district employee Robert Jeffcoat Sr.
According to the investigation, Jeffcoat paid Turner between $100 and $800 a month for gym use. Investigators could not determine what Turner did with the money, but found she did not turn it over to the central administration, as required by district policy.
Jeffcoat is a special-education assistant at Aki Kurose Middle School in Southeast Seattle who has worked for the district on and off since 1993.
The investigation did not focus on him, and did not find he violated district policy.
Still, the ethics commission has decided to also investigate Jeffcoat’s business’s rental of a gym at another school, which officials would not name.
Seattle Select Sports organizes youth basketball teams and hosts tournaments at which Jeffcoat sells concessions and charges admission — at Van Asselt, $3 to $5.
Ethics investigators said Jeffcoat told them his business was a nonprofit. They determined it was not registered as one with the state.
Jeffcoat could not be reached for comment.
The gym-use investigations are not the first time his use of public facilities has come under scrutiny.
In July 2004, he resigned from the Seattle parks department after being accused of misappropriating thousands of dollars while a coordinator of the Rainier Community Center, according to court documents and other public records.
Jeffcoat was arrested in December 2004 and charged a year later with first-degree theft for accepting and cashing eight personal checks worth more than $21,000 from a youth basketball organization playing at the community center.
Prosecutors dismissed the charge in 2007, citing proof problems, after Jeffcoat’s attorney said in court documents that the money never belonged to the city and that Jeffcoat had properly used it to pay referees and other expenses for the basketball games, as required by his agreement with the group, Northwest Sports.
Mike Connors, who runs Northwest Sports, said Thursday he’s known Jeffcoat for years and regards him as a “very trustworthy person.”
The city sued Jeffcoat in 2006 to try to recover the disputed money. That case was settled in 2007 with Jeffcoat paying the city $5,000 and admitting no wrongdoing.
At a Thursday news conference, School Board member Sherry Carr called the Van Asselt problems “an outrageous breach of trust.”
Carr credited reforms begun last year for helping bring the problem to light. Those included a new whistle-blower hotline and the partnership with the city ethics commission.
“From the School Board perspective, this is working exactly as we had hoped it would,” Carr said.
But for some parents, the lack of a public announcement about the ethics commission’s findings revealed fissures in the district’s new focus on transparency.
After the commission completed its investigation and gave a report to the district March 5, district officials contacted police and took action against Turner. But they did not explain the retirement of the six-year principal or post the investigation report on the district website.
Officials said Thursday they didn’t do any of that because they were still deciding how to deal with some of the employees. They noted that Fuentes was not fired until this week.
In addition, officials said they did not want to disrupt the police investigation or the ethics-commission probe at the second school.
“It has not been our policy to release investigative reports when they involve employee personnel actions, especially when a criminal investigation is ongoing and final action had not yet been taken regarding employees named in the report,” Interim Superintendent Susan Enfield wrote in a statement released Thursday.
On Wednesday, the same day The Times filed a public-records request, the school sent a letter to Van Asselt parents outlining the investigation’s findings.
During a news conference as part of her visit to the city, superintendent finalist Sandra Husk indicated she would have acted differently.
“I believe that you need to be active and timely, meaning immediately, getting that information to the public,” she said. “I believe that needs to become apparent as soon as we’re able to tell you. I think you build trust that way.”
Carr said the School Board would examine the process for disclosing ethics-commission reports.
Staff reporter Bob Young and news researchers David Turim and Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.
Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.
Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or email@example.com. On Twitter @Jim_Brunner.