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
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.]