Philly schools plan to spend more on lobbyists to “educate” lawmakers

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The Philadelphia School District, facing down a $434 million budget deficit in the coming fiscal year, is in the process of soliciting lobbyists that can explain to state lawmakers, “its innovative reform programs and impressive successes.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported on Sunday that the district, led by embattled Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman, sent out a request for proposals saying it’s “seeking an agency, individual, or organization to support the district’s growing governmental relations operation in Harrisburg . . . and Washington, D.C.”

The district is currently contracting with the consulting firm Maven, Inc. run by Melonease Shaw, to lobby state legislators. The Maven contract started in 2009 and runs through Feb.28. Under the current arrangement, the district may be obligated for up to $234,000 for lobbying work.

The district relies on about 55 percent of its annual $3.2 billion dollar budget from the state. The district’s proposal letter said that the prospective lobbying firm will be responsible for arranging meetings in Harrisburg and Washington, planning events and providing interested parties with updates.

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi criticized the proposal as misguided, saying “Those funds would be better used to improve educational performance. The city has a large delegation and a mayor, who can effectively make the case for the city’s schools.”

“This shows a fundamental lack of connection with reality,” he added, “considering the financial predicament that the School District finds itself in.”

The district will likely have a more difficult time explaining its problems at the state level, since a shift in power has changed the political environment in Harrisburg. The current lobbyist, Shaw, was closely connected to Dwight Evans, a Democrat in charge of the House Appropriations Committee until Nov. 16, when his fellow Democrats ousted him.

Newly-elected governor Tom Corbett is a Republican, and for the first time in nearly a decade, both House and Senate are both controlled by Republicans. Securing additional funds from the state will be far more difficult, as lawmakers are looking to solve their own budget deficit problems, said to be in the $4 billion to $5 billion.

The head of the House Education Committee, Rep. Paul Clymer said “This is not the time to invest a very large outlay of School District funds to tell many of us what we already know. In this time of fiscal restraint, that money should be used to educate the children.”

One lawmaker critical of Ackerman lately, Rep. Michael P. McGeehan, said he was flabbergasted by the news of the new lobbyist search. “This administration under Arlene Ackerman has exactly zero credibility in Harrisburg,” the Democrat from Northeast Philadelphia said. “The way they’ve handled the South Philadelphia High School crisis, the no-bid contracts, and the suspension of six good School District employees, who may be whistle-blowers, the legislature has serious questions about the conduct of this administration. . . . This is throwing good money after bad.”

Ackerman has been under close scrutiny since November when the Inquirer ran a series of stories detailing how she fired a company that had just started a $7.5 million no-bid emergency contract to place surveillance cameras in area high schools, and abruptly awarded it to a little-known company on the basis that it was a minority operation.

She later suspended six district employees, suspected of leaking information to the media about her controversial handling of the contract.

Critics say that Ackerman rushed to install the expensive surveillance systems in 19 area high schools after learning a state agency was about to release a highly-critical report saying the schools were dangerous. School district sources said that Ackerman wanted to install the cameras on an emergency basis to show that the district was on top of the situation, hoping to blunt adverse publicity against her and her staff.

The Philadelphia Inquirer

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Mexican-American curriculum in Arizona classrooms declared illegal

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Following up on his earlier promise to hold the Tucson Unified School District accountable and compliant with newly enacted legislation, HB 2281, outgoing state school superintendent Tom Horne declared the district’s Mexican-American studies program illegal.

The law was enacted to prohibit any classes or curriculum that are designed primarily for one ethnicity or race, promote ethnic solidarity and resentment against another class or race, or encourage the overthrow of the U.S. Government. Horne said this week of the classes, “It’s propagandizing and brainwashing that’s going on there.”

The state claims that the curriculum is failing to teach students the basics, while creating a whole generation of activists.

In Arizona, the issue seems to be divided down the lines of ethnicity. Local paper Nogales International, which has a Mexican flag on its masthead, calls the whole matter a politically motivated campaign that undermines the authority of the local school districts. It says that, while state school superintendent, Horne regularly fought with TUSD about the program, and now that he’s been elected state attorney general, it will be up to him to enforce the new law. His ultimate goal, it says, is the office of the governor.

Alfredo Velasquez, county superintendent of schools, says he doesn’t consider any local academic programs violate of the law. “They have to learn about their history and their culture and have an appreciation of their history – whether it’s a history of Mexico or a history of Mexican-American culture here in the United States,” he said.

“Ethnic studies is part of that,” Velasquez said. “It teaches about what the Mexican-American community has gone through.”

The curriculum in the Mexican-American studies program substitutes some of the more tradition textbooks and literature for those such as “The Pedagogy of the Oppressed” and Occupied America” which Horne says inappropriately teach Latino students that they are oppressed and mistreated.

Horne cited class materials in which white people were referred to as “gringos” and described privilege as something being related to the color of one’s eyes and skin. He also said that five teaches reported that classes taught a skewed version of American history and promoted racial discord.

The incoming state superintendent of schools, John Huppenthal, released a statement saying that he supported Horne’s ruling that the curriculum was illegal.

After sitting in on some of the classes in the program, Huppenthal said, “My, firsthand, classroom encounter clearly revealed an unbalanced, politicized and historically inaccurate view of American History being taught.” Huppenthal said that students were taught that Benjamin Franklin was a racist, and a photo of Che Guevara was prominently hanging on a classroom wall.

Huppenthal added that student test scores in TUSD were among the lowest in the state, and teachers needed to focus on the fundamentals.

John Ward, a teacher who briefly taught a class in Latino history said, “On the first day of school, they are no different than students in any other classes. But once they get told day after day that they are being victimized, they become angry and resentful.”

If the 53,500-student school district refuses to end the classes, the law provides a penalty of 10 percent in the reduction of its state aid, which would cost the already cash-strapped district $15 million per year.

more here in The New York Times

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Philly school superintendent Ackerman silences five whistleblowers

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Update on 12/15/2010:

The identities of the five suspended employees were reported today, and they are: John L. Byars, senior vice president of procurement services; Francis Dougherty, a key aide to Deputy Superintendent Leroy D. Nunery II; and Patrick Henwood, senior vice president for capital programs. Two are top information technology staff members – Robert Westall, deputy chief information officer, and Melanie Harris, the department head.

Original story :

A new development in the controversy regarding a $7.5 million contract that was allegedly steered to a small firm by Philadelphia School District Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman, was reported today by The Philadelphia Inquirer. State Rep. Michael P. McGeehan said that the district suspended five employees, after notifying them in writing on Monday that the district was investigating the disclosure of sensitive school documents.

McGeehan said that he would ask the state’s attorney general to investigate the suspension and whether it violated the state’s whistleblower protection.

A press statement issued on Monday evening by the school district said that an outside expert had recently been hired to review its business operations.  The statement said, “Apparent inconsistencies in the distribution of prime contracts to vendors, as well as questionable practices in other areas of business and facilities operations, as reported by multiple firms hoping to do business with the school district, led to these new aggressive steps.”

Philadelphia school superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman suspended five employees on Monday claiming that they had leaked sensitive school documents. Others say that the employees are whistleblowers, exposing improper procurement practices inside the district. (photo:The Philadelphia Inquirer)

The statement claimed that an investigation began about two weeks ago, but that it had been more complicated than expected, making it necessary to hire the expert, whose identity was not disclosed. The investigation followed closely the first published report in The Inquirer on Nov. 28 that Ackerman had abruptly pulled a $7.5 million contract for surveillance camera systems at 19 area high schools, and handed it off to a little-known firm, IBS Communications, that was not qualified by the state to handle emergency work, as provided by the contract.

At McGeehan’s request, the state’s acting secretary of education is also investigating the matter to determine if procurement rules were violated and the district officials acted improperly.

The Philadelphia Inquirer

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Emails expose Philly school superintendent’s duplicity

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Over the last two weeks, the School District of Philadelphia  and its superintendent have been juggling a hot potato, thanks to an investigation by The Philadelphia Inquirer. At the core of the story is a $7.5 million security camera contract that was inexplicably yanked from a state-approved vendor that followed a rigorous bidding process, and abruptly handed over to an acquaintance of superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman.

In September 2010, the school district decided to upgrade the security observation system in 19 high schools on what it considered an “emergency” basis. Sources said that district officials were rushing to install the camera systems before a report was issued by the state education department critical of security in the schools, and Philly school officials were concerned about bad publicity from the report.

Philadelphia school superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman yanked major school district contract and awarded it to non-approved minority-owned vendor under questionable circumstances. (photo:The Philadelphia Inquirer)

Characterizing the work as an emergency, the district was able to bypass the usual bidding process normally required for major expenditures. The district began negotiations with an established contractor, Security & Data Technologies, Inc., a firm that was on the state’s approved list for emergency work. After a substantial amount of negotiations and preliminary work, SDT and the district settled on a contract price for the work–$7.5 million.

Once the contract was agreed to and  work began, Ackerman stepped in and reassigned the contract to a little known firm that was not approved by the state for such work, on the basis that SDT was owned by a white businessman and that the newly-appointed firm, IBS Communications, was owned by an African-American businessman, Darryl Boozer. Read more

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Philly school superintendent funnels multi-million dollar contract to tiny, non-qualified firm; no one’s talking

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School Superintendent Ackerman steering contracts and not explaining why

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.

The Philadelphia Inquirer

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