Monday, June 6, 2011

The Seattle Times: late to the party

MLK sale is suddenly big news

Commentary By Bryan Tagas

If there were an award for ringing the fire bell after the house has burned down, the Seattle Times would surely be deserving of a nomination today for its front-page story concerning the School District’s sale of Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School last year. The paper’s breathless coverage focuses on the questionable decision-making process by Seattle Schools and the conflict of interest which may have existed because of ties by District decision makers to the low-ball bidder, First African Methodist Episcopal Church (FAME).

Ostensibly, from the point of view of the Times, what makes this story suddenly worthy of this high-profile treatment is the fact that the State Auditor’s Office has announced it is looking into the situation.  But what really makes the case potentially juicy for the newspaper is the possible involvement in the School’s decision-making process of the now notorious Fred Stephens. That’s the man, as readers will recall, who famously failed to supervise ex-furniture repairman Silas Potter, the guy who eventually took down School Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson last year.

We now know a lot more about some of the players than we did at the time the School Board decided the MLK School issue.  Presumably this knowledge informs the Times’ new sensationalist approach to the MLK story--a story that many people, in and out of the media, were pretty well aware of before the State Auditor got involved.

One may legitimately ask, “What did the Times know and when did it know it?”  Surely the paper was aware that the School District was about to sell MLK for “a song” (to quote today’s headline) well before that sale actually took place.  If the paper had covered the story then as it covered it today, it would have provided the public service of shining a light on a very flawed process.  The Times also knew, or should have known, that there were legitimate procedural questions about the sale that had been raised by the opponents.  Included on that list was the fact that the School District did little due diligence with regard to FAME’s proposal to purchase the property.  We reported this bombshell as part of our own coverage of the MLK sale (Ron English, the School District’s in-house lawyer, telling us that no analysis was undertaken).

Before the School Board voted, what did the Times actually do with the information at its disposal?  It buried it on the inside pages, running a perfunctory story about the upcoming sale.  Why would the paper do that rather than beat the sensationalist drum it so recently discovered?  Well, it’s only speculation on my part, but when the MLK situation should have been big news the Times was editorially supporting passage of the $48 million Seattle School levy.  To do a story on the District giving away School assets “for a song” would have potentially undermined the paper’s effort to see the levy passed. Surely the Times would not have wanted blame for causing a levy failure.

But maybe that’s unfair.  Perhaps this was simply a case of slipshod journalism—the failure to follow a story to its logical conclusion.   Whatever the reason, mainstream media failed to do its job, with the Seattle Times squarely in the forefront.

What makes the MLK sale a big story is not just the possibility that School official Fred Stephens may have wanted to sell the property to a Church at which his father was once the pastor—or even that he may have used undue influence to see that that sale ultimately occurred.  If any of these allegations is true, this conflict-of-interest angle is certainly worthy of reportage.

What’s an even bigger story, however, is the one that’s based these facts:
  • Our cash-strapped School District sold a valuable asset for a pittance 
  • The process for vetting the various School-purchase proposals was critically flawed 
  • The taxpayers of the State (through Legislative appropriation) ended up paying for a church to acquire public property that could much later be resold by that church without any repayment to the taxpayers
Today the Seattle Times’ kicker (that line of copy just above the headline) screams: “Seattle school district passed up millions to favor low bidder in sale of Madison Valley school.”

NOW you tell us!

[The former MLK Elementary School site acquired by FAME is located at 3201 E. Republican St.  Photos show the current condition of the buildings on the property.] 


  1. I find a Times article from October of 2010 which addresses all of the issues you suddenly today consider to be an "even bigger story." Your point about them hiding a story therefore makes no sense. Plus, they are not impacted by what becomes of their endorsements. They endorse issues and candidates that fail all the time. The conspiracy theory is a reach. Talk about being sensationalistic.

    Mr. Stephens is the only topic they did not address back in October of 2010 and he only became "notorious" early THIS year, months later. It is therefore perfectly legitimate that they would revisit the story in a different context. After all, that's why the State is looking at it now, right?

    As for why nothing has happened on the land, have you driven around the city lately? There is a whole lot of land sitting vacant where nothing has happened in years. Bush would not have completed their design and permitting, scraped together the close to $1m it would have cost them to re-grade the site, and installed their new soccer field yet, either, so take heart.

    Who was having a slow news day, the Times, or you?

  2. Yes, The Seattle Times had some of the facts, and the article stating them ( was a relatively minor one buried on the inside pages of the paper. It was NOT headlined on the front page: "School to be sold for a song! School District to pass up millions to favor low bidder!" as today's story was. The placement and the headline actually used for the pre-Board-vote story ("School District leans toward church bid") were editorial decisions about which speculation is certainly legitimate. I admit my speculation on the Times' motivation may be wrong.

    What I'm not wrong about, however, is that if MLK was "sold for a song" in October 2010, as the Times now declares, it might have bothered to proclaim that fact in a blaring headline when it could have had some impact on the process, rather than today.

    Here are three things the Times did NOT report in its October story: 1) The School District did not investigate the FAME proposal to determine whether the programs proposed could be carried out by the Church, 2) the District had no plans to evaluate whether FAME is living up to the agreed terms of the sale contract (or to impose the contractual penalties if they are not), and 3) FAME can sell the property at the end of the contractual period and pocket the proceeds.

  3. City of Seattle insiders looting the City to enrich friends and relatives? Not as outrageous as the California "City of Bell" controversy, but uncomfortably similar lack of oversight.

  4. This entire situation reeked then and reeks now. The writing was all over the wall. How can anyone following this story then and now, say that they did not see this coming?!

  5. I'd like to know if there is any way to reverse this mess, get the school back and sell it to Bush? Is there? Also, if I may speak the unspeakable as someone with strong civil rights movement efforts behind me. What does this do to the reputation of the black community in Seattle, when the leaders of a major black church engage in such nefarious activities with the 'mafia' in the Seattle School system? That part is really sad and worrisome, as any excuse for racism is always used by some.

  6. rich people (and their rich schools) make things nicer. when things are nicer, surrounding values go up and everyone is happy. now that lot is going to sit there forever because it sold to a church which relies on handouts to fund itself - handouts that have undoubtedly decreased significantly since this whole mess began.

  7. Clearly you don't read this blog very much. The 2nd biggest sport on here is bitching about increased property taxes, which are a direct result of "things being nicer." Also, as someone who lives across the street from Bush School, I can tell you that it has brought many undesireable things to the neighborhood, increased traffic, noise and litter chief among them.

    The addition of a soccer field would have increased these on days when we are normally allowed to live normal lives in our own neighborhood. It is laughable that their proposal to improve the lives of youth in the area by letting them run around on the plastic grass for a couple of hours on a few days a week was considered to be on-par with the other proposals which, if nothing else, gave a minute of thought to what the neighborhood really needed.

    If Bush is so great, why don't they step up with an offer?? Bryan says the church is looking to sell.

  8. something tells me that when you go to sell you're house across the street from Bush you'll be singing a different tune. you can't pay the premium for living a stone's throw from arguably the best private school in the city, bitch about it's "undesirable things" while you live there, then tout it's location as a major selling point.

  9. I am fairly new to the blog world. Is there a rule about intentionally avoiding correct capitalization, punctuation and word usage? I hope that the commentator above didn't go to Bush.

    Anyway, how is the School Board skating by on this one? Regardless of what did and didn't happen prior to their vote to approve the sale, the ultimate responsibility is theirs. A majority of those (elected!) officials approved this deal. No other individual or group had the power to do that.

  10. We're glad the MPB raised the issue.

    Any efforts to rescind the sale to the church? If not, why not?

  11. They have space for lease signs at the school now, maybe Bush should lease all the space available.
    It looks like all the tenants listed in their proposal for using the building were a lie, what a shock.

  12. The above idea actually is not possible because part of the building does not meet the requirements to house children. I am assuming that the play structure that sits unfenced is condemned as well. Why wasn't this investigated by journalists? How is it that a property, with a building that does not meet code for children, is sold to a church community that depends on "handouts." They obviously intended to use this building. How much would the church have to invest to make this building useable for all populations? Maybe someone could look into this. I imagine that the total would be far more than FAME can afford.


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