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Seattle Public Schools chief faces sudden exit

Seattle Schools Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson faces a school board vote of termination of her contract at their Wednesday. March 2nd meeting.
Gary Davis
Seattle Schools Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson faces a school board vote of termination of her contract at their Wednesday. March 2nd meeting.

A financial scandal will likely force an abrupt end to the tenure of Seattle Public Schools superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson. The school board will vote Wednesday evening on a motion to terminate her contract.

The motion was drafted after a nearly four-hour closed-door meeting of the full school board Tuesday evening. The district's Chief Financial and Operating Officer Don Kennedy also faces termination. Another motion would appoint Chief Academic Officer Susan Enfield as Interim Superintendent.

Alleged fraud at heart of scandal

The scandal started with a rogue office designed to help minority-owned contractors assemble bids for school construction projects. Over the course of several years, Silas Potter, Jr. allegedly misspent funds, and possibly profited personally. Potter was eventually fired and has moved to Florida, according to The Seattle Times.

School board members say they only began hearing about some of the problems last year. That led to an investigationby the State Auditor's Office. By December, the school board learned that the program had engaged in "potentially fraudulent activity."

They hired an independent counsel, Patricia Eakes, to investigate. Simultaneously, the matter was referred to the King County Prosecuting Attorney for a criminal investigation, which is ongoing.

Eakes sent her report to the board last week, which detailed lax or negligent oversightand potential fraud with the programs Potter managed.

A CEO should have known

Tuesday evening's meeting (in closed Executive Session) was the first time school board members were able to discuss the report. They issued a joint statement calling the revelations "deeply troubling" with "a series of red flags that should have been heeded." The statement concludes:

"The disturbing evidence of repeated violations of the public trust demands swift and decisive action by the Board. We are uniformly committed to restoring public confidence and to ensuring that this never happens again."

Citing a loss of public confidence, they drafted the motions to terminate Goodloe-Johnson and Kennedy.

Board members can't legally take a position on the motions in advance of the meeting, but the motion would not have been submitted without support from a majority of the school board members.

Three school board members talked briefly to reporters. None of them has spoken to Goodloe-Johnson in the past week. She's in South Carolina, caring for her mother, who is hospitalized there.

"I'm a CEO of a small business, but oversight is a critical part of my job," said board member Kay Smith-Blum, owner of Butch Blum clothing stores. "So, when you lose faith in your top management … then you only have certain options."

The school board cited four specific concerns that emerged from the investigations:

  • A lack of management oversight and accountability that allowed potentially fraudulent activity to persist for years without intervention;
  • Missed opportunities on the part of staff in varying roles and at varying levels to keep the Board properly informed;
  • A workplace culture within some parts of our organization that caused fear of reprisal among employees who might otherwise report concerns;
  • Management’s failure to act upon those employee concerns that are reported.

As Danny Westneat writes in The Seattle Times, an equally damning point might have been evidence from emails that Kennedy and Goodloe-Johnson may have had concerns about the program two years ago, but deliberately concealed that from the school board.

Keith Seinfeld is a former KNKX/KPLU reporter who covered health, science and the environment over his 17 years with the station. He also served as assistant news director. Prior to KLPU, he was a staff reporter at The Seattle Times and The News Tribune in Tacoma and a freelance writer-producer. His work has been honored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.