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Tacoma’s school money belonged in classrooms

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on March 5, 2011 at 5:08 pm |
March 4, 2011 5:12 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

News flash: The citizens who pay for public schools expect their hard-earned money to be spent on public schools, not on adults angling for business contracts.

Especially when money for teaching actual students is getting scarcer.

Had the Seattle and Tacoma school districts kept their focus relentlessly on the classroom, they wouldn’t have wound up duped by a rogue operation that claimed to be cultivating minority contractors while in fact squandering or pocketing money that should have been spent in the classrooms.

The Tacoma School District’s role in this is relatively minor, though it did wind up spending $105,000 without seeing much in the way of results. Along with the City of Tacoma and several other local governments, it bought into the Seattle district’s “Regional Small Business Development Program” (RSBDP), whose purpose was to help minority businesses bid for contracts.

According to the State Auditor’s Office, the Seattle School District got burned to the tune of $1.8 million by the new program, which misspent the funds on “services” that were either impossible to verify or never delivered – or turned out to be pretexts for siphoning money into private hands. A criminal investigation is under way.

What triggered the auditor’s investigation was the discovery that a $35,000 check, made out by the Tacoma School District to the Seattle district, wound up in the account of the “RSBDP.”

Only this wasn’t the regular RSDBP – it was a private outfit set up with the identical name by the same slick operator who’d run the Seattle district’s program. It appears that school money was getting siphoned into a clone-like shadow organization by a man who’d grown accustomed to spending public money without grownup supervision.

The Tacoma School District was not a player in this scandal, but it did make two mistakes. One – obvious in hindsight – lay in trusting the administrative competence of the Seattle School District. That error should not be repeated.

The other mistake was more fundamental. Encouraging bidding from minority contracts is laudable, but school money ought to stop with the “encouraging.”

In this case, everyone knew that much of the money was to be spent, in theory, on training would-be bidders. Classes were held for them – or sometimes not held, according to the auditor – at great public expense. The instruction included such bonehead subjects as using Microsoft Word; the auditors found that the RSDVP even served free meals at times.

The program appears to have been spared hard scrutiny in Seattle because it ostensibly benefited minorities.

The Tacoma School Board and Superintendent Art Jarvis suffered from the same blind spot when they signed on in December 2008. Only board member Debbie Winskill, dissenting, saw right to the heart of the issue: “It’s an adult program, not a student program,” she objected.

Exactly. Money for public education is limited and precious; not a penny of it should go to anything but public education. If the district is anxious to help members of disadvantaged minorities – and it should be – it will find plenty of them sitting behind the desks of its schools.

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