Fred Stephens: How lax management contributed to Seattle school scandal

Fred Stephens: How lax management contributed to Seattle school scandal

Shaw capital working management tips: Fred Stephens: How lax management contributed to Seattle school scandal

In early 2005, as construction cranes dominated the skyline, African-American activists demanded that Seattle Public Schools give more work to minority contractors. Their complaints had grown louder as public agencies ended affirmative action in the years after passage of Initiative 200.

“I want my jobs back, or I’m going to be a thorn in somebody’s side, OK?” Harold Wright, an electrical contractor, said during a February 2005 School Board meeting.

Within weeks, Wright said, he and other contractors were introduced to Fred Stephens at a meeting with then-schools Superintendent Raj Manhas.

Stephens, who had spent most of his career in government, soon was hired as the district’s facilities director and began mending relations between the School Board and minority-owned construction firms.

And on paper, he succeeded. Millions of dollars in contracts were flowing and the tension with minority contractors eased.

In reality, the program was steadily collapsing under the weight of mismanagement. On June 28, five years after he took the job, the district called Seattle police to report an alleged theft of $35,000 by the man Stephens hired as a liaison to the contractors.

That very day, Stephens was nailing down details of his new job, a top post with former Gov. Gary Locke at the U.S. Commerce Department in Washington, D.C., that he had sought for more than a year.

Stephens would be there, 2,700 miles away, as auditors closed in on a financial scandal that would cost Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson her job.

While political and financial costs for the district have mushroomed, Stephens, 64, has been largely silent. He declined to answer more than a dozen detailed questions, responding only with a few terse e-mails to The Seattle Times. He puts the blame solely on Silas W. Potter Jr., the manager who ran the contracting program.

Stephens’ friends say a family tragedy may have contributed to his lax oversight of Potter. Stephens says he believes investigations “will demonstrate that I have committed no wrong doing.”

But a series of expert reviews found that, despite one warning after another, Stephens allowed Potter to turn the minority-business program into a favor factory, doling out at least $1.8 million in questionable or wasteful contracts.

The consequences of Stephens’ “major management failure,” as one investigator called it, are piling up.

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