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Tuesday, October 15, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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School officials start moving into new headquarters

Seattle Times staff reporter

"Very feng shui," quipped Joseph Olchefske as he poked his head in the door of Raj Manhas' office.

Manhas and John Vacchiery, chief operating officer and facilities chief, respectively, of the Seattle School District, were sitting amid a jumble of swivel chairs that had seen better days, not at all like the ancient Eastern practice of arranging furniture for harmony. Welcome to moving day at the district's $54 million headquarters, a former postal-sorting facility that has been turned into a combination of warehouse, kitchen, offices, auto-repair shops and employee-training center.

About 90 administrators and their assistants yesterday moved into the John Stanford Center for Educational Excellence at Third Avenue South and South Lander Street in Seattle.

"I would offer you a chair but mine got lost," said district spokeswoman Lynn Steinberg, whose small office was crowded with stacks of cardboard boxes.

More than 800 employees, now located at 20 sites around the city, will work in the sprawling, three-story building when the phased move-in is completed in December. Bringing them together is expected to improve efficiency and reduce operating costs for the state's largest school district.

But the move comes as the district is struggling with a $33 million budget shortfall resulting in part from accounting errors. Some detractors have suggested the cost of the headquarters contributed to the crisis — a claim denied by district administrators.

One who sees the Stanford Center as part of the problem is David Westberg, business agent for International Union of Operating Engineers Local 609, which represents hundreds of nonteaching employees. "Everybody has a budget and everybody knows what it means to overextend yourself — every family in the city," he said. "It won't take a rocket scientist for the public to figure out how this happened."

Dubbed "the glass palace" by detractors, the new building is more functional than luxurious. Heating and cooling ducts hang exposed from the ceilings. Thick concrete columns rise from concrete floors, which are bare in some places, carpeted elsewhere. Bands of shiny corrugated steel, reminiscent of streamlined passenger trains of the 1920s, ring the building's exterior.

"You can say it's a beautiful view of the downtown stadiums or a beautiful view of Arby's and McDonald's. Both are true," Superintendent Olchefske said of his corner office anchored by "Stand-up Indie," a life-size self-portrait of his daughter, third-grader India.

Only a few administrators, including Manhas and Olchefske, have large offices with windows. Other administrators, including the education directors who supervise school principals, have just enough room to squeeze in one or two visitors.

For lower-level workers, much of the building's eight acres are a warren of cubicles. Conference rooms are sprinkled around for meetings. The idea is to encourage managers and line workers to get out of their offices and work together. "That's a big cultural shift for us," Olchefske said.

Administrators are studying how to repay the bonds that financed the Stanford Center. Operating efficiencies will generate much of the needed funds. But another revenue source originally earmarked for repayment — $11.5 million in proceeds from selling the former Logistics Center to Costco — will be used instead to replenish other capital reserves shifted to help cover a $21 million shortfall in the 2001-02 budget.

As the district grapples with a $12 million gap in the 2002-03 budget, administrators are looking at other surplus properties that may be sold.

While many questions remain about the district's finances, Olchefske said, the bottom line is that the Stanford Center "doesn't detract in any way from the economics. The Stanford Center is contributing to our economics."

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com.

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