The Kent School Board voted for a second time on distributing grant money to the nonprofit Living Well Kent after Director Awale Farah failed to disclose during the initial vote in March that his wife is executive director of the group.
Farah also listed Living Well Kent as his source of income when he filed a financial affairs disclosure report June 17, 2021 with the state Public Disclosure Commission when he ran for the school board. Voters elected Farah in November 2021. He disclosed on that report that his spouse (Shamso Issak) earned $60,000 to $99,999 per year as the Living Well Kent executive director.
The board voted unanimously March 9 to accept $287,500 in grant funding from The School’s Out Washington Refugee School Impact Program. The board also directed district staff to distribute the funds to Communities of Rooted Brilliance, Iraqi Community Center of Washington, Living Well Kent and World Relief to spend on extended-day learning programs for refugee students.
After the vote, a board member asked district staff to look into whether there was beneficial interest because Farah’s wife worked for Living Well Kent, said Paul Brachvogel, the district’s general counsel, in his June 29 report to the board.
“(A board member) must disclose appearance of what could be remote interest or beneficial interest in a contract,” Brachvogel told the board.
Brachvogel said staff stopped any distribution of funds to Living Well Kent as it looked into whether there was any violation of state laws for public officials. He said staff determined Farah had remote interest in the contract and decided the board should vote again on the matter without Farah present.
At the June 29 special meeting, Brachvogel had Farah leave the meeting at the the district administration building. Farah didn’t make any statement prior to leaving the meeting. Brachvogel said state law allows the board to enter into a contract if one member has a remote interest.
Brachvogel said that staff did not know prior to the March 9 vote that Farah’s wife worked for Living Well Kent.
Farah, in response to a Kent Reporter email, didn’t answer why he didn’t disclose his connection to Living Well Kent and voted March 9 on the grant award. The March 9 summary of the agenda item listed Living Well Kent as one of the nonprofits to receive funds.
In his response, Farah quoted from the June 29 agenda documents written by staff.
“It is important to emphasize that neither the board director nor his spouse has, or would have had, directly or particularly benefited from the district’s receipt of grant funds under the contract that was approved on March 9; and, that the board director spouse is a salaried employee of the CBO (community-based organization), according to the district documents. “Likewise, the vote authorizing the contract did not direct funds to the CBO, it merely accepted those funds. Furthermore, the CBO was not mentioned in the grant contract that was the subject of the board vote. Finally, the discretion to enter into the CBO contracts was left to staff.”
Farah then added his own statement.
“It is important that we avoid any appearance of a conflict, and the law allowed the board to do just that by using this process – the law allows for a board to vote on a contract, even though a board member may have a secondary or remote interest in that contract,” Farah said. “In order to do so, the conflict must be disclosed, and that board member should recuse himself from the vote. The objective was to ensure that children in our growing immigrant community receive the grant funds intended to benefit them, which is in keeping with the board’s long-held interest in equity and inclusion.”
The funds are from a federal grant that went to School’s Out Washington’s Refugee School Impact Program for distribution to school districts and then to community organizations. The Kent School Board approved an initial grant of $105,000 in October 2021 (prior to Farah being on the board) to the groups and then an additional $287,500 in March. The district did not disclose in its documents how much money went to each specific group.
Ken Smith, a retired Central Washington University accounting professor and president of his Salem, Oregon-based The School Accountability Group, has kept a close watch on the Kent School District since its financial crisis in 2017 when it had a negative fund balance of about $7 million.
Smith, a former Northshore School District board member, said during a phone interview that conflict of interest rules are fairly straightforward and rigorous.
“If there’s an appearance of conflict of interest, you disclose it,” Smith said about the Farah incident. “The fact that the grant went from the district to his wife’s employer he needed to recuse himself and disclose it.”
The Washington State School Directors Association publishes a guide for school board members and superintendents entitled “Avoiding Conflicts of Interest.”
The guide states, “These ongoing personal and financial relationships require the superintendent, each board member and, most importantly, the affected board member to remain vigilant in conducting the district’s business fairly and with complete transparency.”
Brachvogel, the school district attorney, said staff determined Farah didn’t have a conflict of interest but rather a remote interest. He said the board already had contracted with Living Well Kent in the past and the vote was to accept funds from the grant.
Board member Joe Bento asked Brachvogel the difference between conflict of interest and remote interest.
Brachvogel said it could be argued that Farah was a secondary beneficiary because he wife works for Living Well Kent and that’s why district staff decided to vote on the measure again. But he said the law provides exceptions that makes it remote interest rather than a conflict of interest.
“If you are in a small, small town and (the rules) are too strictly applied, you could have a difficult time entering into a contract with a vendor,” Brachvogel said about why the laws have exceptions.
The board voted 2-0 on June 29 to approve the awarding of the grant money to the refugee learning programs. Board President Leslie Hamada and Tim Clark voted for it. The usually five-member board has just four members due to the recent resignation of Michele Bettinger. Farah wasn’t present for the vote and Bento abstained.
Brachvogel said the vote passed with just two votes because it had the majority of the quorum (three) present, according to Robert’s Rules of Order, the standard followed by governing bodies.
Bento said earlier in the meeting that the board needs to closely examine the community based organizations that receive funds from the district.
“We would have caught this if we looked at CBOs (community based organizations) and who is working there and if they are related to anyone in the district,” Bento said.
Hamada said Living Well Kent was looked at and has been a district partner long before Farah was elected to the board.
“I think it’s to our credit to revisit this and scrutinize what we do and make the best of it we can,” Hamada said. “We don’t do everything perfectly.”
Clark said he has visited Living Well Kent and its refugee learning program.
“I find this money very well spent,” Clark said. “It’s not a startup, this is something that has been around.”
Hamada summarized voting again on the same measure, but this time without Farah part of the vote.
“We get into a lot of legal stuff and we are learning and growing,” she said.
Editor’s note: This article was updated with comments from Awale Farah.