James Yamasaki

Before he was elected mayor, Mike McGinn made something of a threat to Seattle Public Schools. If the district remained troubled—as it had during a cascade of budget shortfalls that resulted in shuttering several schools—he would commandeer the district. McGinn wrote on his campaign website in early 2009 that "if, after two years, there has been no improvement, I will move to have the mayor's office take direct responsibility..."

Well, it's been almost two years. And Seattle Public Schools, still beleaguered with financial shortfalls, has spun further into financial disgrace. A state audit found on February 23 that the district accidentally allowed a $1.8 million fraud in the small-business program.

About a week later, one day before the school board voted unanimously to fire superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson, Mayor McGinn appeared to follow up on his campaign pledge. He told Seattlepi.com that he was "prepared to be a 'partner' to the district" and "provide management and fiscal support" in the coming months.

But his overture had problems.

First, Washington State law doesn't allow cities to take over school districts, which are independent local governments. The state constitution is clear on who can seize control of our public schools (the state legislature, in cases when laws are broken), and mayors don't make the cut. For the City of Seattle to "take direct responsibility for the school district," as the mayor first offered, McGinn would have to change the state constitution.

A partnership may be more realistic. But missing from McGinn's offer were details of what a city–school district partnership would look like. The city already assists the district with athletic programs and the Families and Education Levy. Was his offer to "provide management and fiscal support" referring to the financial management? McGinn's office didn't respond to repeated requests for a comment.

Seattle Public Schools spokeswoman Teresa Wippel says the district's newly appointed interim superintendent, Dr. Susan Enfield, couldn't comment because there's "nothing on the table yet."

And the school board, while open to ideas, draws a line in the sand at letting the mayor manage school finances.

"It's not as if we will turn over our books to the city," says school board vice president Michael DeBell. "We have our own system and will protect the privacy of our employees." DeBell has met with the mayor several times to talk about the subject generally, he says, recounting, "My expectation is not that the city will do our financial managing, but will give advice."

Board director Kay Smith-Blum, meanwhile, says that she can't imagine a scenario in which the school district wouldn't have its own finance department. The school district has an annual budget of $556 million and 47,000 students, while the city operates on $3.9 billion, including an $888 million general fund budget.

"The city has its own fiscal controls and we have ours," says Smith-Blum.

A day after a version of this story appeared on The Stranger's blog, McGinn wrote a stern op-ed in the Seattle Times once again offering to "partner" with the district "only if the district is serious about change." But he remained vague, suggesting the city could provide "staff, management, and fiscal expertise."

What if the board doesn't like the mayor's ideas? Well, then the board could always vote them down, DeBell said. However, DeBell says the school board may borrow from the city's ethics policy. And board president Steve Sund­quist also says he welcomes advice from city personnel. That said, Sundquist notes, the two government entities "need to stay separate."

Support The Stranger

But is the school district—which appears to need a little help—making a mistake by not wanting to hand over its finances to the city? Not necessarily. New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, a finance and media mogul, tried taking over schools in his city. Four years later, he's under fire from some people for failing to turn around the school system.

McGinn won as an environmental guy, lacking Bloomberg's business background, so his chances for shaping up the schools seem even more far-fetched. And besides, McGinn has got plenty of other fires—his own city budget shortfall, a police force embroiled in allegations of misconduct, and a fight over the deep-bore tunnel—to keep him busy. The mayor and the district don't need to compound each other's problems. recommended