City panel could soon oversee ethics at Seattle Public Schools

Mar 17, 2011

An independent watchdog committee could soon take over ethics investigations at Seattle Public Schools. The move is an effort to rebuild public confidence after an audit exposed questionable spending and a lack of oversight at the school district.

When state auditors investigated nearly $2 million in misspent funds by school district employees, they say an “atmosphere of fear and intimidation” was one reason whistle-blowers didn’t come forward. 

At a press conference, interim superintendent Susan Enfield and city leaders said that’s why the district signed a memorandum of understanding to shift responsibility for ethics complaints from the school district to the city’s Ethics and Elections Commission. 

“This sends a strong signal to district staff and our community that Seattle Public Schools is very serious about creating a culture of accountability that will surface any concerns about wrongdoing,” said School Board President Steve Sundquist.

The independent commission is made up of citizen volunteers who investigate complaints and enforce the city’s ethics code. Two years ago, it busted a fire department lieutenant for failing to bill the owners of Qwest Field for nearly $200,000 in fire services. 

If the commission ends up working with the school system, it would review the district’s ethics policies and train staff to follow them, as well as investigating complaints. It would not have the authority to penalize violators.

Other details, including costs to the school district, haven’t been finalized. When they have, the plan will have to win approval of both the school board and city council before it goes into effect.