Michele and Shawn Bettinger had seen enough.
As parents of children who attend Kent schools and supporters of public education, they argue the Kent School District is fraught with financial and systemic problems. The Bettingers and other parents claim the district and its board of directors have allegedly mismanaged school funds, violated open meeting laws and misled the public.
The Bettingers have filed several complaints with the State Attorney General’s Office and sent grievances to the Kent School Board, demanding an audit of district finances and procedures. They have questioned the leadership and accountability of the superintendent.
The couple took it a step further, filing a lawsuit on March 7 in King County Superior Court against the district and school board for the alleged infractions. In essence, the Bettingers want financial stability for the school district, and more open, forthcoming and responsive leadership to meet the needs of parents and students.
“Kent School District is in financial peril, operating paycheck to paycheck hoping for additional McCleary money to ‘solve’ their problems,” the legal document said. “Under the leadership of the Kent School Board (‘Board’) and Superintendent Calvin J. Watts (‘Superintendent’) the financial stability of the district has further deteriorated.”
Responding to the recent litigation, the school district replied on its website:
“Our district, superintendent, and Board take every complaint regarding an employee or Board member seriously. Superintendent Dr. Calvin J. Watts leads with equity, excellence and community in mind as we continuously improve outcomes for students. Kent School District remains focused on successfully preparing all students for their futures.”
At the foundation of the complaint is finances and alleged irresponsible spending. The school district has been under public scrutiny as it continues to recover financially from a budget deficit while managing declining enrollment. A fiscal recovery task force has been established.
“A review of the finances demonstrates that we have every reason to be highly concerned,” the legal document said. “Since Superintendent Watts took over as ‘CEO’ of our district, he has steered us into the equivalent of bankruptcy.”
Magnified in the complaint is the Bettingers’ claim of an unapproved, “questionable” $3.2 million interfund transfer made to the 2017-18 budget to reflect a more positive general fund ending balance.
“Superintendent Watts has resorted to misleading the public and the financial institutions directing an unapproved backdated interfund transfer to bolster the bond rating appearing as if the District is solvent,” the legal document said.
Responding to complaints, the school board insists it has done nothing improper and is in the process of hiring an independent auditor to examine the district’s financial behavior over the past six school years. The performance audit is separate from the regular state audit that routinely examines the school district’s financial practices each year, said Melissa Laramie, spokesperson for the school district.
The performance audit, Laramie explained, will evaluate measures instituted by management to ensure that resources have been procured economically and are used efficiently and effectively. The audit, Laramie said, will look at all policies and procedures that were amended, created and revised through the end of the 2017-18 school year, specifically around vendor selection, purchasing and contracted and commercial activities.
The school board received a bid from a company to conduct the audit at its meeting Wednesday night. When the audit actually begins depends on whether the board accepts the first request now or decides to take another offer later, Laramie said.
In the legal document, the Bettingers and their supporters said they “have pushed for an internal audit and an independent investigation. The Board has stalled for over a year on an independent audit.”
Watts and school board members have indicated they welcome the performance audit to directly address any financial irregularity, impropriety and/or misappropriation of funds.
The school board affirmed that the state audit would include and address questions about the “3.2” transfer.
The lawsuit also alleges “the superintendent and school board have elected to operate in secret,” violating open meeting laws.
“The continued violations only leave us to believe that this district prefers to conduct the public’s business in private and keep families and taxpayers in the dark,” the legal document said.