As Riya reports below, there's a controversy brewing over the sale of the former Martin Luther King Elementary School to the First AME Church, and while I wholeheartedly support investigating the deal—especially considering the prior scandals of the Maria Goodloe-Johnson administration—I've got to take issue with the underlying assumption presented in most news reports, as typified in today's lede in the Seattle Times:
When an affluent private school in Madison Valley offered to pay as much as $9.7 million for an empty public school in 2009, the choice for the cash-strapped Seattle school district seemed obvious: Sign the papers.
But what could have been a straightforward real-estate deal turned into an elaborate chess game that ended with a well-connected church buying the closed Martin Luther King Elementary School with $2.4 million in taxpayer dollars.
First of all that's not an apples to apples comparison. The Bush School actually offered to purchase the property for $3.75 million. The $9.7 million figure would have been for a longterm lease, paid out to the district over decades. Still, $3.75 million is more than $2.4 million.
And that seems to be the gist of almost all the reporting I've seen. The Bush School's bid was substantially higher, yet the district went out of its way to accept the lower First AME bid. Instant scandal. Which brings us to the bigger question: Why is it so "obvious" that the district should accept the highest bid?
The primary mission of the Seattle Public Schools is to educate children, no question about that, but historically, schools also play a much larger role in their communities. Anybody who witnessed the anger and passion displayed during the past two rounds of school closures understands how a neighborhood school is much more than just a building with classrooms. MLK Jr. Elementary was part of the community, and the district needed to be cognizant of this role in determining how to dispose of the property. The school district is not a real estate development firm, and while it certainly needs to be a responsible steward of taxpayer money, it is not in the business of maximizing returns on real estate holdings. Money certainly needed to be part of the equation, but it would be wrong to assert that price should have been the only factor in making this decision.
Perhaps the higher bid from the exclusive Bush School, along with its promise to keep the play fields open to the public on weekends would have been the best option for the community. Perhaps the investigation will ultimately uncover something improper about the First AME deal. I don't know. But there's nothing scandalous in itself about taking less money for the property in the interest of best serving the needs of the surrounding neighborhood.