An investigative story in the Philadelphia Inquirer has turned up troubling evidence of school district contracts being doled out on a secretive basis to unqualified firms, but all parties involved are refusing to comment. At the center of the newspaper’s investigation is the recent award of a $7.5 million contract for surveillance cameras at 19 public high schools in Philadelphia.
In violation of state law, district officials decided to enter into a no-bid contract on the camera project that they deemed to be an “emergency”, although sources claim their motivation was the publicity fallout of a soon-to-be-released state report criticizing the district for persistent violence in 20 high schools. Pa. state law only permits no-bid contracts for emergency work to address serious hazards such as “fire, flood, or unexpected structural or mechanical failure.”
Security & Data Technologies, Inc., a state-approved contractor for handling work deemed to be on an emergency basis, was brought in to handle the work. After surveying the schools and discussing the scope of work, an estimate was submitted in the range of $4.5 to $6 million. After the district officials made additional work requests, the contract was fixed at $7.5 million.
As SDT was moving ahead on the site inspection phase of the work, city School Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman abruptly stepped in and ordered her staff to fire the firm, and hand the work to tiny IBS Communications Inc. According to inside sources, no reason or explanation was provided by Ackerman. IBS had previously done work for the district, but the work was for preparing blueprints on another project. IBS charged $12,980 for work that another company offered to do for $1,000.
The only apparent connection IBS had with the school district is that the firm leases office space in a building that is managed by the school district’s head of procurement, John L. Byars. According to one of Ackerman’s aides, Byars is the person who approved the contract with IBC, although other sources close to the situation accuse Ackerman of the illegal hand-off.
Even though the school district claimed that the job was an emergency, thus requiring a state-approved contractor, IBS was not on the qualification list.
All parties to the transaction refused comment on why IBS was given the lucrative contract, including officials at the school district and the two contractors involved. Sources at the school board who were staff employees, talked with the newspaper on the condition on anonymity, fearing retribution by management.