SEATTLE SOUNDINGS | For the children

Of all of the countless warning signs that you are being pandered to (or more likely lied to) by a politician, none is a more absolute giveaway than when we are assured that something, anything is being done “for the children.”

Assurances that some action is being taken “for the kids” has been used to sell everything from highway construction to new fighter jets, usually when more rational, less emotionally loaded pitches aren’t working.

If there is any benefit to the precious, wee ones from such an endeavor, it’s almost always incidental and well down the list of the motivations of its sponsors. If you’re being told something’s “for the kids,” what you’re really being told is not to look too hard at the details.

Which is why it’s always useful to take a hard look at the perpetually kid-loving leadership of the Seattle School District, never more so than with last month’s scandal.

Quick to react — this time
A state auditor’s report in late February detailed $1.8 million in dubious payments through the district’s small-business contracting program — payments, auditors concluded, that brought no benefit to the district or the public.

In a rare burst of seeming accountability, by the following week, Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson and her chief financial and operating officer, Don Kennedy, had been fired by the school board. There was no evidence either Goodloe-Johnson or Kennedy participated in the alleged malfeasance themselves, but investigators found that both had been told of the improprieties as early as 2009 and failed to respond.

The board acted swiftly and unanimously; it was so anxious to get rid of the pair that it fired them without cause, forking out a full year’s salary in severence to Goodloe-Johnson and a half-year’s pay to Kennedy, rather than take the time to prove they had done anything wrong.

Some brief context: This is the same school district that for, literally, decades has engaged in a ferocious competition with the Port of Seattle as to which public agency could be more insular, more contemptuous of the public and more resistant to public accountability.

Goodloe-Johnson and Kennedy themselves were brought in from South Carolina in 2007, specifically because there was so little community trust in existing district leadership.

When a reform slate won a majority of seats on the district’s board in 2003 with four new members, the usual suspects who’ve treated the district as their fiefdom for ages — from staff members to downtown business interests — launched a relentless campaign to oust them. (All four were gone at the end of their first term.)

When community members mobilized repeatedly in recent years over sloppy and racially charged school-closure plans, they were largely ignored until the clamor was overwhelming. When teachers and parents started organizing no-confidence votes against Goodloe-Johnson last year, the district expressed full confidence in her leadership.

So why was the superintendent fired so quickly this time?

Sweeping under the rug

With the central figure in the controversy, a former mid-level manager named Silas W. Potter having decamped for Florida months ago — likely about the time the auditor’s office started nosing around in his affairs — and with the heads of Goodloe-Johnson and Kennedy put on giant spikes outside the district’s SoDo headquarters for all to see, local reporters swiftly moved on.

This is a shame, because it’s worth considering why a district so notoriously averse to accountability fired its top two leaders so precipitously that its board agreed to pay out severance deals worth 20 percent as much as the originally misspent money in question.

It would seem that if the issue is misspent tax money, either the board just misspent a chunk more, or they’re paying for a perceived benefit in immediately jettisoning Goodloe-Johnson and Kennedy. What’s the benefit?

Well, there’s two, actually. This fall, voters will be asked to consider a new Families and Education Levy that provides critical funding for the district. Given all the previous controversies over the years, the last thing the district can afford now is a protracted controversy over the misspending of public funds.

It will be difficult enough to pass this levy; last year, every ballot measure associated with paying taxes went down, and with the economy still lagging, it’s likely to be just as difficult in 2011. Every week the district let the Potter controversy fester brought it a week closer to Election Day.

Beyond that, as with the state auditor’s report two years ago ripping the Port of Seattle over its third-runway construction, the report that doomed Goodloe-Johnson wasn’t a comprehensive overview of the district. There’s plenty reason to suspect that the culture of entitlement and petty fiefdoms that characterized Potter’s dealings festers elsewhere in the district, too. And enough to suspect that a staff that didn’t tell the board about outside concerns with the small-business program — and a board has rarely asked difficult questions — wants to keep that culture of non-accountability intact.

By rapidly throwing two outsiders, Goodloe-Johnson and Kennedy, under the bus, the Seattle School District’s board could announce it has zero tolerance for improprieties, or it could just be scrambling to make ugly headlines go away without any challenge to the underlying culture that spawned them — or both.

A big job ahead
Goodloe-Johnson’s interim replacement, former chief academic officer Susan Enfield, has as her biggest job in the coming months, working to restore the public’s trust in Seattle Public Schools’ administration ahead of November’s levy.

To do that, she needs to demonstrate that an entire staff culture is being rooted out — not just the latest people who oversaw it.

is cofounder of Eat the State! He also reviews news of the week on “Mind Over Matters” on KEXP 90.3 FM.[[In-content Ad]]