The Seattle School Board this evening unanimously voted to hand over the Seattle school district's ethics investigations to an independent city ethics panel, marking the first time any school district in Washington has taken this kind of a step.
The Seattle City Council approved the partnership between the school district and the city yesterday, which would see the city's independent ethics panel investigate complaints of improper governmental action and retaliation against whistleblowers in the district. Although the district stepped up its ethics policy in late 2010—establishing stronger whistleblower guidelines and an anonymous complaint hotline—a small business contracting scandal last December forced it to rethink whether it had a strong enough ethics program.
The city has partnered with the school district on other programs in the past, and at the school board meeting today, Mayor Mike McGinn and Council Member Tim Burgess indicated that they were open to future collaborations. "There may be other opportunities where we can align our brain power with yours," Burgess said.
"This is quite an achievement," McGinn said. "...It sends a strong signal to employees and the public. In any organization, there may be a requirement for an impartial third party to step in and take a look."
The school district will be paying the city $125,000 for its services and a one-time $5000 payment for starting equipment and other supplies. The ethics commission will be hiring a new investigator for this job.
The city will handle all complaints and investigations for the district as well as provide training for all district employees. The program will be based on existing Seattle Public Schools ethics policy. The district has already spent about $110,000 since November 2010 on ethics work and investigations unrelated to the small business fraud, but an extensive training program for its 8,000 employees has not yet occurred.
Once an investigation is complete, the city will provide the school district with a report. SPS still reserves the final authority to decide whether any penalties would be prescribed.