Community group occupation blocking school renovation

by: Gary Horcher Updated:

Horace Mann school was scheduled to undergo a multi-million dollar renovation on September 1.
SEATTLE —

The Seattle Public School Board is trying to figure out what to do with a controversial community group occupying the historic vacated Horace Mann School in the Central District, after the school district ordered the group to leave months ago.

The Mann school was scheduled to undergo a multi-million dollar renovation on September 1. Every day construction is delayed at the site, the district owes contractors between one-thousand and $2,500 in penalties.

At an extremely crowded school board meeting Wednesday night, anger between parents, neighbors, and board members boiled over. Board members asked Superintendent Jose Banda why the group wasn’t removed weeks ago.

“Right now, we don’t control the building,” Banda said.

Banda indicated Seattle police were made aware of the building’s occupation, although police have not ordered the group to leave the property.

Banda asked the board to delay voting on the idea of moving the group, so the district could study the case further.

The group, known as Africa Town Center for Education & Innovation, wants to use the building for after-school and summer education programs for black students, by black educators. The group believes the Mann building represents a significant symbol in the Central District for African-American youth.

Several parents told the school board the Mann school has become an alternative for public schools.

"I was forced to take my daughter out of Seattle Public Schools, because she was getting mentally abused on a daily basis, said a concerned mother. “Now I have her at Horace Mann, where she is thriving!"

The group was originally allowed into the building by the Seattle Amistad School, which leased the facility from SPS.  However, the district did not renew the lease when plans emerged to renovate and reopen the school.  Amistad left, but Africa Town stayed. The group chained and barricaded the school’s fences from the inside.

The school district is also still paying for power and heat at the school. Neighbors have complained about the behavior of some of the people occupying the building-- calling them squatters. A neighbor, who calls himself Johan, told the board to “do their homework about the group occupying Mann School.”

“The isolated groups that are in the Horace Mann building do not serve as many people as they say,” said Johan. “I live there, I see it."

Seconds later, Johan was confronted by an outraged Africa Town supporter and board members called security to remove the woman.

“Can we get paid for what the white Americans have done to blacks all our lives? Can we get some respect,“ the woman shouted, as she was escorted to the door.

Johan says he's run into hostility at the school in the past.  “They don't want to answer questions. They don't want to say anybody is in charge; they just want to push you away. And they're kind of aggressive about it."

Before delaying the vote Wednesday night, the school board was set to decide whether to give Africa Town some space for their activities: Horace Mann’s two portable trailers and two rooms on district property two miles south. 

“We won’t move there,” said a group volunteer, who asked not to be identified. “The portables are filthy, and unacceptable.”

KIRO 7 is continuing to follow this story, and will press the school district for updates.