Africatown and the schoolhouse-to-condo pipeline

14 Nov
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Photo by Alex Garland

I’m continually disappointed with the hostility that Melissa Westbrook from Save Seattle Schools blog has shown toward the More4Mann movement and the Africatown Innovation Center at Horace Mann.  As I argue below, if we want to fight privatization and save public school buildings from private use, we should be supporting the efforts in Africatown, not opposing them.

It strikes me that Melissa  is coming from an administrative, building-management perspective, rather than a holistic perspective that puts the students first.   For her, managing public school buildings is concrete, and the majority of her reporting on this story has focused on chiding the district for loosing control of the Mann building when community members refused to leave it.  She goes on and on about the polices around public building management, until  the purpose of public school buildings in the first place – educating students -starts to seem distant and abstract.

If I were an editor at the Onion, I’d write a satirical piece entitled “Education blogger takes on the achievement gap between buildings”.   Truly, it seems like Melissa wants to make sure that no building is left behind.  

This puts her on a collision course with the parents and educators in Africatown who have  focused their efforts around the students themselves and what they need.  They have continued to hold the Mann building because they have concrete plans for how to use it to help their kids – and all kids.  They care about the students enough to risk arrest.  They are impatient with the districts’ hand-wringing about the so-called “achievement gap”. They are not letting red tape stall the efforts necessary to dismantle the oppression Black students face in Seattle Public Schools.

However, I don’t want to dismiss Melissa’s care for buildings entirely.  She is right that there is a history of scandal and corruption in SPS around the mismanagement of public buildings.  Given this, bloggers and the public in general should be vigilant about how the district enforces or fails to enforce its own policies.  She is also right to fight the pro-privatization forces that are clearly attacking public school districts across the nation.  These astro-turf, billionaire funded “community groups” try to throw public officials and employees off balance, creating crises that can be exploited to sell off parts of the public school system at fire sale prices. They also use this chaos as an arena to research, test, and market new management and consulting services.  Diane Ravitch has documented all of this thoroughly in her new book Reign of Error.

The More4Mann Coalition is NOT this kind of group.  They are distrustful of Seattle Public Schools for good reason.  But this does not mean they are part of a corporate privatization agenda.  They have continuously said they want to partner with the public schools, and as a teacher I have experienced nothing but support and solidarity at Africatown events.

They are attempting to create a public educational resource rooted in the Africatown neighborhood, serving the public good in that neighborhood.  As longshore worker Leith Kahl pointed out at the Oct. 5th summit, these kinds of efforts are exactly how public education was founded in the first place.  The Africatown organizers are also committed to transforming public schools across the district through teacher/parent/student organizing and professional development for educators.

Even more concretely, they have an impressive track record of clashing with some of the very people who have been implicated in privatization efforts and corruption.  The article below presents some of the early history of the More4Mann movement, when the Umoja P.E.A.C.E. center, Decolonize / Occupy movement participants, and other  groupings allied to prevent condo developers from gaining control of the Mann building.   This article was originally posted in the comments section of a misleading report by the Stranger.

Please keep this article in mind when you hear people claim that the people in the Mann building are trying to take a public building for their own private reasons.  Also, please remember this when you hear district officials say they need to move Nova back into Mann in order to alleviate the district-wide space crunch.

Let’s ask why that space crunch exists in the first place.  I wonder – if the founders of the More4Mann movement hadn’t started taking direct action at Mann back in 2011, would the district even be trying to return Nova to the building?  Or would they be working with developers like LEXAS  to lay the groundwork for future condos and more gentrification?  

SEATTLE YOUTH RALLY TO PROTECT PUBLIC SCHOOL BUILDING 
FROM PRIVATIZATION AND CONDOS
by Leith Kahl

The downsizing and privatizing of education in the US is a brutally physical process. Perhaps nowhere was this more clear than in Seattle´s Central Area on Veterans Day, when a crowd of young people refused to leave a public meeting about the future of a public school building at 24th and Cherry, which has sat vacant since the end of 2008. Police were called to eject the public from the building, and one youth and one community elder were arrested and charged with “tresspassing” and “disorderly conduct”.

An advertisement in the The Facts Newspaper had clearly invited the general public to this meeting. The meeting called by the leaders of an organization called “Family Life Center”, a ministry of Peoples Institutional Baptist Church, which also sometimes does business under the name “Work It Out”.
This entity was awarded a lease on the building by the Seattle Public School District about a year and a half ago, even though their lease bid was neither the highest bid, nor was it a bid that contained any committment to the school district to use the building for any purpose relating to public education. Their were other bids which did offer such an explicit committment, including one from the nearby Umojafest Peace Center which has a track record of turning blighted buildings into vibrant centers of community programming with almost no budget at all.

The United For Youth Coalition, a coalition of which the Umojafest Peace Center is a member, called upon its members and supporters to attend this public meeting and voice their concerns, which they did. When the “Work It Out” entity reacted to the presence of these youth by first cancelling the meeting, and then asking the Seattle Police Department to eject the public from the building, the Coalition responded by staging a protest on the sidewalk immediately outside of the building. Some members of Occupy Seattle and other local groups also attended both the meeting and the protest which followed it.

In the significant time that has passed since the “Work It Out” entity was awarded the lease on the property by the school district, the impressive building and the grounds around it have continued to sit fenced, empty and vacant, except for a few occasional days when work parties of volunteers organized by the Umojafest Peace Center were allowed into the building by “Work It Out” officers to perform the grunt work of cleaning up the facility. Although the “Work It Out” entity holds the lease and the keys, it has no budget of its own sufficient to pay for the lease that was awarded to it, and is only able to make the payments on this lease by means of a public grant of over $100,000 that it is recieving from the City of Seattle´s Department of Neighborhoods. The “Work It Out” entity has also recently announced in The Facts Newspaper that a religious organization will be moving into the building.

The Seattle Public School District has already established its reputation for privatizing public buildings this year, and for doing so in a manner that has become infamous for intrigue and cronyism. The most well know example was the controversial sale of Martin Luther King elementary school to a private religious organization, which in turn was issued public funds with which to purchase the now vacant and derilect school. (See Seattle Times article June 5th, 2011 “State investigates Seattle district´s sale of MLK school” – seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews…; ).
As a matter of fact, the Seattle Schoold District even has a page on its website dedicated to the “property leasing and sales of closed school buildings”:
http://www.seattleschools.org/modules/cm… . “The Seattle Public Schools leases out portions of operating school buildings, closed buildings, and conducts sales of surplus buildings from time to time”, this website proudly proclaims.

The very idea that a public school district would use the term “surplus” to describe any of its facilities at a time when prisons and detention centers are still being rapidly constructed throughout the country displays a certain degree of contempt for the public trust that has been invested in this school board. The recent financial scandals that have led to the termination of former superintendent Goodlowe Johnson and the arrest of the scam artist Silas Potter further illustrate the school districts contempt for that public trust.

Is this pattern now repeating itself yet again in the case of the Horace Mann school building?

Why would a building leased to a private organization at public expense proceed to sit vacant for over a year and a half? The reason why becomes apparent, even to the amature investigator, when we simply examine who sits on the “Work It Out” project´s steering committee (workitoutseattle.org/staff.html).

This ten person committee nominally claims to include eight members of the Peoples Institutional Baptist Church community, including Jocquelyn Duncan and Charelyn Stennis (daughters of the late Bertha Jinkens), Charisse Cowan Pitre (an associate professor of Teacher Education at Seattle University), Erin Fleeks (a staff member at the Central Area Senior Center), Loris Blue (Vice President of enrollment at SCCC), and local Seattle DJ Guy Davis.

There are, however only two members of this committee who are directly connected to the Seattle ruling class power structure and the investment capital behind it. These two are Kristen M. Link and Sheryl Frisk, Investement Associate and Vice President, respectively, of a real estate investment and trading firm called LEXAS Companies (www.lexascompanies.com).

LEXAS Companies publicly describes itelf as “a private real estate investment company that creates value in quality projects with distinct competitive advantages” organized to “strategically select geographical areas, submarkets, product, and cycle timing to create superior risk adjusted returns”.

The company website goes on to state the following about its “KEY EXECUTIVE TEAM”:
“The LEXAS Companies is lead by Joseph Strobele, a former senior executive of Legacy Partners and Lincoln Property, Co. along with John Midby, also Chairman of The Midby Companies, a Las Vegas developer with over 40 years experience in developing a diverse array of assets. Additionally, our company recruits, develops and retains only the most highly skilled and experienced professionals. Together our long term experience in several geographical markets along with our expertise in the development field has resulted in an array of successful projects in the Puget Sound region and has poised us to expand even further.”

LEXAS Companies describes its Vice President Sheryl Frisk thusly:
“In the capacity of Vice President, Sheryl Frisk is responsible for the acquisition and management of income producing projects for The LEXAS Companies and its subsidiaries. Sheryl manages all phases of operations of the real estate process, from locating and acquiring assets to the repositioning and disposition of investments. Sheryl serves as the key liaison with banks, investors, and Board of Directors on all aspects of the projects she develops. Sheryl is responsible for managing project specific sales teams, construction companies, consultants, and administrative and on site employees.
“Prior to joining The LEXAS Companies, Sheryl worked for the Seattle Monorail Project as the Right of Way Acquisition Manager. She was responsible for development processes including contract negotiation, managing all acquisition, property management and relocation contractors, as well as coordinating with land owners, tenants, and city officials. Sheryl’s background in land acquisition, development, property management, construction and mechanical contracting give her a keen understanding of the acquisitions and development process making her a positive asset to our team.”

LEXAS Companies is clearly not in the business of educating young people. It is in the business of deriving profit from real estate investment transactions.

Peoples Institutional Baptist Church is an old, venerable, and relatively respected institution in the Central Area, but it does not and never has weilded power within the the downtown city machine or within the world of major investment capital. Anyone who thinks that PIBC, on its own, is capable of developing the Horace Mann building is not thinking realistically. In this case, the church is being used as a pawn by LEXAS Companies, a tool with which to occupy a space on the real estate chess board which the school district is either unable or unwilling to protect for the benefit of our children.

In this writer´s opinion, the church will only be useful to LEXAS until the real estate market and the political climate are ripe for LEXAS to make its move to develop the site into high priced and profitable condominiums, just as the Housing Resource Group corporation has done with 90% of the space inside of the old Coleman building, a small corner of which is still laughably touted as the “Northwest African American Museum”. Until then, LEXAS just needs the “Work It Out” steering committee to maintain a pretense in the media that some community activity is taking place under its auspices, while ensuring that the building itself remains empty and fenced off.

That is the reason why the ministers of “Work It Out” believed they needed to summon the Seattle Police to eject members of the public from a publicly advertised public meeting in a public building on Veterans Day of 2011. They are loyally protecting the real estate interests of downtown investors who are unlikely to ever reward them for this favor.

Peoples Instututional Baptist Church can change this course of events by directing its ministry to unite with the Umojafest Peace Center and the United For Youth Coalition to actually produce public programming in this public space for the benefit of the young people who need it most.

In the meantime, people of good moral fibre should continue to support the Umojafest Peace Center and United For Youth Coalition in their efforts to protect this valuable public resource from the opportunistic and creeping acid of private investment capital. The United For Youth Coalition´s position on the matter is excellently presented in a youtube video at the following link:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rBNrSOUdA… .

Leith Kahl

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6 Responses to “Africatown and the schoolhouse-to-condo pipeline”

  1. freeuniverseity November 14, 2013 at 10:56 am #

    Reblogged this on Free UniversE-ity.

  2. Charlie Mas November 20, 2013 at 12:15 am #

    “As I argue below, if we want to fight privatization and save public school buildings from private use, we should be supporting the efforts in Africatown, not opposing them.”

    The Africatown Center for Education and Innovation is a private entity. The school district is a public entity. Keeping the building under the ownership and control is keeping it from private use. Giving either ownership or control of the building to the ACEI would be putting it in private hands.

    • mamos206 November 20, 2013 at 1:10 am #

      Not necessarily. After all, the ACEI reps have repeatedly said they want to partner with the district to set up an innovative school. Why can’t they become a public school, but with the autonomy to set their own curriculum? It is possible to create an African-centerd curriculum that meets the EALRS/ GLES/ Common Core standards as the district requires, and the Africatown educators have stated publicly that they are working on such a curriculum. It would just require developing their own materials instead of using the textbooks the district adopts on a centralized basis. There are other programs like that throughout the city. And if they do this, the curriculum they develop could be adopted in other schools as well if it proves effective, which I’m confident it will.

      Also, Dr. Qassim was clear that the Africatown programs have been, and will continue to be, open to all students – that sounds like public education to me, not private.

      • mamos206 November 20, 2013 at 1:17 am #

        What I’m worried about is that all the hostility from the district and from your friend Melissa will push the Africatown folks away from the movement to defend public education. Then the corporate/ pro-privatization forces might court them, encouraging them to set up a charter instead of working to transform the public schools as they have been doing so far. If that happens, I think it would be reasonable for future historians to hold your blog partially responsible for a major setback in the struggle to save Seattle public schools. You and Melissa are burning bridges that you really need to be shoring up if we want to win against Bill Gates and Co. I worry that you’ve gotten so caught up in the details around the Mann struggle that you’re missing this bigger picture, and that’s disappointing.

  3. Tyler November 20, 2013 at 7:27 pm #

    Regardless of whether or not the educational programs being offered in that school building are the best educational programs ever it strikes me the biggest misuse of a public building of all would be turning it into an expensive condo that contributes to displacing the community. Plenty of school buildings are being used for mediocre to downright bad educational programs every day and that’s never seemed to have been a problem for the Seattle Public Schools before.

    • mamos206 November 20, 2013 at 9:43 pm #

      exactly. I don’t agree with every aspect of the curriculum being developed by the ACEI, but that should not be the standard for whether or not we support the program. The people involved are talented and committed, and we can learn from their successes and their shortcomings. The only existing alternatives are more gentrification and more mediocre or downright brutal classrooms for youth of color.

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