Ackerman's answers don't add up

Arlene Ackerman

The demand for explanations concerning an “emergency” contract to install surveillance cameras at 19 violent Philadelphia schools has been met, sort of. But don’t be surprised if the explanations leave you even more confused.

The district gave a $7.5 million no-bid contract to IBS Communications in September to install cameras at 19 “persistently dangerous” city schools. But sources told The Inquirer that another firm, Security and Data Technologies, was already doing preliminary work on the project when it was instead handed to IBS.

SDT’s reversal of fortune occurred under orders from schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, the sources said. That charge has been denied by district officials. Ackerman, however, does admit to handing a $12,000 job to IBS to assist in the installation of cameras at South Philadelphia High last December.

Nothing has been what it seemed to be in this saga, starting from the original declaration of an “emergency” to install the cameras at 19 more schools.

The Philadelphia School District was granted broad authority when it was declared in “distress” by the state secretary of education in 2001 and placed under the direction of an appointed School Reform Commission. The SRC does have the authority to forgo competitive bidding when there is an emergency, which is described in the district’s procurement manual as “an urgent need as in the case of a disaster.”

No doubt, some Philadelphia schools are a disaster when it comes to providing safe learning environments. And urgency is required to correct that situation, But the fact that it will take months to install these cameras shows this job isn’t an emergency.

In fact, the SRC’s members should hang their heads in shame at having capitulated to the district staff’s request to treat this contract as an emergency. It’s one more indication that the SRC has become a toothless entity that ill serves the public as its watchdog.

All of the available information suggests an emergency contract was requested only because Ackerman wanted to act swiftly to undercut an expected state report that criticized the district’s pace in reducing school violence.

In addition, deputy superintendent Leroy D. Nunery II said that in a district where 80 percent of the students are minorities, it was important to make a statement about affirmative action by hiring a minority firm. IBS fit the bill. SDT, which apparently has enjoyed being a favorite among district contractors, did not.

“We’re trying to break a culture that is hurtful in many ways,” Ackerman said. “Too many contractors with years of experience working in city schools feel automatically entitled to district business … and it’s not fair.”

It’s commendable that Ackerman wants to level the playing field for all qualified contractors. But the way this project was handled isn’t the way to do it. An “emergency” never should have been declared to handle what unfortunately has become routine in city schools. The district had time to solicit competitive bids and emphasize minority participation