Seattle School Board member Peter Maier was only a footnote in the Seattle Public Schools' $1.8 million contracting scandal this spring, which culminated in the firing of superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson amid a parade of front-page headlines. But it turns out that Maier, who is seeking reelection this fall, received a report in 2009 that warned of potential malfeasance in the small-business program. Had Maier acted on that information, critics say, he could have saved hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Instead, Maier ignored those red flags.
"Maier has utterly failed in his oversight responsibility," says David Edelman, a teacher at Ingraham High School, located in Maier's Northeast Seattle district.
As chair of the school board's Operations Committee, Maier acknowledges that he read warnings in a document called the Sutor report, commissioned by the district, about irregularities with a small-works contracting program, originally a component of the regional small-business development program. It was run by former Seattle Public Schools employee Silas Potter. Nearly two years before Washington State Auditor's Office investigators alleged that almost $2 million had been fraudulently awarded via the small business development program for projects that were never delivered, the report detailed glaring problems with assigning contracts, including hiring unqualified contractors and using improper documentation. The report also warned about a conflict of interest between certain programs, and it recommended that their administration and management be separated.
"The level of deficiencies found during our review... results in the conclusion that significant changes need to be made with respect to the administration and staff procedures," it said.
"And then what did he do?" Edelman asks. "Nothing! He didn't follow up with the superintendent, and he didn't even contact the other board directors."
Maier admits as much.
At a March 6 school board meeting, right before the board unanimously voted to fire superintendent Goodloe-Johnson for her role in the scandal, Maier said he had been alerted to the problems and didn't tell the board.
"I read the report and was concerned," Maier said. Former facilities director Fred Stephens handed him the report in January 2009, Maier said, after his first meeting as chair of the Operations Committee. At the time, approximately $1.2 million dollars had been lost. Between the time Maier received the report and when the district finally sought a criminal investigation, according to the state audit, the district had lost another $500,000.
"He is directly and personally, though not wholly, responsible for the Pottergate scandal," Edelman continues.
Could Maier have saved the district money by taking action when he saw the report?
"I don't think that's possible," Maier says. Even though the report had its own red flags he blames Stephens for "not telling me the whole truth."
Two people challenging Maier in this year's election, Sharon Peaslee and John Cummings, criticize Maier for failing to act. Meanwhile, the Seattle Education Association, the union representing teachers, and some of Maier's colleagues on the board have expressed similar concerns.
"Deep down somewhere, he knows he did a shitty job," says Cummings.
Maier has also been the subject of criticism for rubber-stamping the district's administration instead of standing up for parents and teachers. For example, Maier irked the teachers union by voting for a contract with Teach for America, a program to bring fresh college graduates to work as teachers in schools, even though there's no shortage of local teachers in Seattle. Little surprise then that the union decided against endorsing Maier this year (his challengers filed too late to get the union's endorsement). Maier also supported the controversial shuttering of schools and ardently supported Goodloe-Johnson, even though schools, parents, and teachers voted no-confidence in her.
"I am a problem solver, not a table thumper," Maier argues.
But Seattle Education Association vice president Jonathan Knapp says that while Maier likes to say he solves problems behind the scenes instead of discussing them publicly, "the Sutor report was something he could have acted on behind the scenes, but he didn't."
This article has been updated since its original publication.