February 24, 2011; Source: Seattle Times | A new state audit of the Seattle Public Schools is jam-packed with questions about vendors' services – or lack of them. At least two of the vendors are prominent Seattle area nonprofits.

The school system paid the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle $25,000 for a software subscription fee to a database to match small business owners with general contractors, part of the schools' $1.8 million effort to help female- and minority-owned companies compete for government contracts. While the database was only in development, it wasn’t working satisfactorily, and the school district decided to use an alternative system. But the money was paid nonetheless.

Another contract paid the nonprofit Grace of Mercy based in Tacoma $163,175 for instructional services. According to the auditors, the instruction took place on dates when no classes were taught. The head of Grace has a completely different story – that the classes actually did take place – but the agency only received approximately $2,500 to $3,500 for the services.

The nonprofits (and a number of politically connected for-profits) may well have been at fault, but it appears that this entire minority contracting program in the school system had long been a pit of accountability problems, with indications of problems dating back to 2009. The head of the program was reprimanded, gradually deprived of the ability to award construction contracts, and finally resigned last year. Now the auditors have discovered that he could not be located to give input into their analysis.

Overall this seems like a school system seriously lacking system-wide checks and balances – at least in this program – using it to buy influence with Seattle's minority community rather than designing a more workable strategy to increase the school district's ability to identify and recruit minority vendors.—Rick Cohen