Pa. Dept. of Education launches investigation of secretive $7.5 million contract

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Pennsylvania’s Department of Education has started an investigation into the questionable actions of Philadelphia School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, relative to a $7.5 million contract which she pulled from an established district vendor, and handed off to tiny, non state-approved vendor.

State Rep. Mike McGeehan (D., Phila) asked acting Secretary of Education Thomas Gluck to look into the transaction to determine if the district violated state procurement laws when it switched vendors. McGeehan also suggested that the action may have violated the American Recovery and Stimulus Act, which provided the funds through the federal Build America Bond program.

At issue is a major contract for surveillance cameras at 19 district high schools that were called “persistently dangerous” by school officials. Inside sources say that the district mischaracterized the work as an emergency assignment in order to bypass the bidding process as required by state law, after officials learned that a critical report was being released by the state board of education addressing poor security at the schools. School officials wanted to show that they were already addressing the problem.

In September 2010, the district hired an established vendor, Security & Data Technologies, Inc., on an emergency basis to install the cameras. After the work had already started, insiders say that when Ackerman learned that the firm handling the work was owned by white businessmen, she ordered the contract to be cancelled, and gave it to a small minority firm connected to district’s head of procurement, John L. Byars. The firm, IBS Communications Inc., leases space in a business center that is managed by Byars.

Besides side-stepping the state’s bidding requirement for major contracts, the state mandates emergency work to be performed by firms on the state’s list of approved vendors, which does not include IBS. Although IBS had not been awarded any district contracts in the past, Ackerman said that she made her decision based on her awareness that the firm was minority owned, and her possession of a business card that was given to her by the owner.

IBS had previously done a small amount of work for the district, consisting of providing schematic drawings on a completed camera surveillance project. IBS billed the district $12,980 for the work, even though the prime contractor on the job offered to do it for $1,000.

The Philadelphia Inquirer

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