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Originally published Sunday, March 6, 2011 at 2:13 PM

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Guest columnist

Seattle Public Schools must do more than replace the chief

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn speaks out on the Seattle Public Schools financial scandal, offers advice and help for how the district can change its culture for the benefit of students and families.

Special to The Times

For many parents and residents in Seattle, the financial scandal that led to the firing of Seattle Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson reinforces their belief that our school district isn't using its budget wisely to help our children succeed. We have some good principals and teachers in our schools, but mismanagement makes their job more difficult.

As we prepare new investments to help our students, the public deserves to see fundamental changes in the operation of the Seattle Public Schools.

Fiscal and management problems at the school district are, unfortunately, not new. Eight years ago, Superintendent Joseph Olchefske resigned after the district overspent its budget by $35 million. In the aftermath of that scandal, accounting firm Moss Adams offered numerous recommendations to the school district to prevent mismanagement from happening again. Those recommendations weren't fully implemented. Olchefske's successors, Raj Manhas and Goodloe-Johnson, failed to change the culture of the school district. As a result, public confidence in the schools has declined.

The Seattle Public Schools needs more than just a change in management. It needs to get to the heart of the problem and commit to a fundamental change in culture. Here are some steps that need to be taken to fix the school district:

• Hire a financial expert to get the house in order. Susan Enfield is a great educator. But she is not a budget expert. Neither am I. When I took office last year, I brought in Beth Goldberg to head the City Budget Office. I asked her to find efficiencies and establish a sustainable path for city spending. She did that, and it is my job as mayor to make sure her plan gets implemented. Enfield and the school board need to bring in an outside financial expert with authority to fix the schools' budget — and commit to getting it done.

• Develop a culture of accountability. I find it very disturbing that school employees were discouraged and intimidated from speaking up about the fraud and waste they witnessed. It is part of a pattern of behavior that has existed in our schools for years, and it needs to end now. The school board and the new superintendent need to establish a culture of accountability — with employees encouraged to speak openly about how money is spent, and with everyone working hard to identify problems before they become a crisis.

• Accept outside help. The district can't solve this long-term problem on its own. My administration stands prepared to partner with the district and help it fix these problems. City government can provide staff, management and fiscal expertise to the district. But we will do so only if the district is serious about change.

We will take the Seattle Public Schools' progress in achieving these steps into account as we decide how to implement the Families and Education Levy when it is renewed. Levy proceeds are collected by the city, not the school district, and all levy contracting partners — including the Seattle Public Schools — are held to very strict oversight standards. We conduct regular audits to ensure not only that outcome targets are being met, but also that money is being spent wisely. My administration has not been shy about terminating contracts with city partners if money is not being spent properly or effectively.

The school district has to work with its partners and the public and demonstrate there will be no more secrets, no more sacred cows. Kids come first. That is my commitment to the parents, children, and people of Seattle. I ask that the Seattle Public Schools join me in that commitment.

Mike McGinn is the mayor of Seattle.

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