UPDATE: Updated with more information from the auditor's office at 10:30 a.m.
The Seattle Times reported today that the state Auditor's Office is investigating the sale of a Seattle School District public school to First African Methodist Episcopal Church under questionable circumstances.
Although the district received a much higher bid—$9.7 million—from the private Bush School for the empty Matrin Luther King Elementary school, it decided to sell it to First AME for $2.4 million. The reason? A revised school district policy allowed the district to sell a closed school to the lowest bidder if they promised to use 50 percent of the space to support youth education or social services.
The Seattle School Board voted 5-2 in October 2010 to approve the sale. According to the Madison Park Times, school board members and neighbors were hopeful that First AME would offer programs for the community at the vacant school site which was purchased by the church with the help of taxpayer money set aside by state lawmakers to help a non-profit group buy MLK.
However, questions were immediately raised about whether district officials exploited their authority to help the church acquire the property. One name that has come up is that of Fred Stephens, the district's former facilities director and a First AME congregant, who was involved in the sale in some ways. Currently a deputy in the U.S. Department of Commerce, Stephens was also questioned by the auditor's office in the district's $1.8 small business contracting scandal back in December.
· One former district employee told The Seattle Times that her boss, Fred Stephens, director of the district's property division and an influential First AME congregant, was determined as early as 2007 to help the church get the school property.
"We are looking at the sale of MLK school to First AME church and whether the sale complied with district policy and procedures and state law," says Kara Klotz from the auditor's office. "We are looking at whether there was any conflict of interest."
Klotz says that the SAO first received citizen complaints about the sale in March and decided to investigate it as part of the school district's 2010 fiscal year accountability audit. Klotz says the SAO is aiming to release the report by the end of the month.