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Ackerman steered work, sources say

The schools chief, they said, overruled staff to give a firm a $7.5 million no-bid job. An aide denied that.

Superintendent Arlene Ackerman. (CLEM MURRAY / File)
Superintendent Arlene Ackerman. (CLEM MURRAY / File)Read more

In a highly unusual move, city School Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman interceded to remove a contractor from a $7.5 million, no-bid emergency project and then awarded the work to a small company to install surveillance cameras in 19 dangerous schools, according to sources with extensive experience in district business operations.

IBS Communications Inc., the Philadelphia firm that was awarded the project, was not on a state-approved list of contractors eligible for emergency work.

Without explanation, sources said, Ackerman summoned key aides to a meeting Sept. 23 and ordered them to award the work to IBS, a minority firm, without competitive bidding - even though her professional staff had asked another company to begin expedited work.

It was the second time in the last year the superintendent had steered work to the Mount Airy company. On the earlier occasion, the district ended up paying 12 times more than the offering price of another contractor.

The latest award also appears to violate state guidelines that allow school business officials to bypass bid requirements: "To be deemed an 'emergency,' the situation should involve a serious hazard such as fire, flood, or unexpected structural or mechanical failure."

Ackerman declined two written requests for an interview. District spokeswoman Shana Kemp repeatedly denied that Ackerman had played any role in selecting IBS for the work. "That is not correct at all," she said. "She had nothing to do with it."

Even in dire circumstances, district policies require emergency work to be performed by companies already under contract. Alternatively, the district can contract with businesses on a list of vendors that have been approved by the state and have prenegotiated prices.

The sources, who questioned Ackerman's actions and described them as extremely troubling, said they did not want to be identified because of fears their jobs could be jeopardized.

Not only was there no emergency, the sources said, but Ackerman appeared to be motivated by public-relations concerns, seeking to defuse criticism about school safety in a soon-to-be-released state report.

Kemp defended the need for the no-bid award to install camera systems in 19 schools classified as "persistently dangerous."

"School safety," she said, "has been a huge issue, as you are aware of. And we couldn't take the chance of waiting around and putting our kids in danger."

Rather than Ackerman, "our procurement officer approved it," Kemp said of the selection of IBS.

John L. Byars, executive director of procurement services, prepared the written rationale for the emergency spending in a resolution for the School Reform Commission. The document describes IBS as a minority business.

Byars serves on the board of the Business Center at New Covenant Campus, a business incubator at 7500 Germantown Ave. that leases space to IBS for its headquarters.

Kemp said Byars had told her he had no direct involvement with IBS. "He said IBS has offices where his board sits," Kemp said, "but there are no improprieties."

Efforts to reach Byars for comment were unsuccessful.

IBS began the work in mid-October, before the SRC had approved funding for surveillance systems at schools with violence problems, including Germantown, Frankford, and Olney High Schools.

According to public records, IBS was established on Dec. 29, 2000, by Darryl Boozer, its chief executive officer and owner. Its clients, according to a filing with the city's Minority Business Enterprise Council, have included several churches, the Philadelphia Community Development Center, and the Renaissance Charter School, which has since closed. That same filing, dated June 2008, describes IBS' work as consulting on computer science and computer integrated systems design, and installing telecommunications equipment.

Boozer declined to comment. "I'm not interested in talking to The Inquirer," he said.

Ackerman's intervention on behalf of IBS, according to sources, was the second time in the last year she had directed her subordinates to find district work for the company.

In December, after other contractors had completed a weekend overhaul of the security systems at beleaguered South Philadelphia High School, Ackerman directed that IBS receive a share of the work, sources said.

That project, completed under deadline duress between Friday night and early Monday, cost $709,207 and included installing new cameras, outfitting an air-conditioned command control center, refurbishing bathrooms, replacing lights, and repainting parts of the school. The companies performing the work were on approved emergency lists.

Because Tri-State Telecommunications of Bristol had finished installing the cameras, the sources said, the only work remaining was for IBS to provide schematic drawings - called "as builts" - for the district. The sources said Tri-State had expected to handle the drawings, as is normally the practice, and offered to do so for $1,000.

Instead, sources said, a man identifying himself as an IBS employee appeared at South Philadelphia High and asked Tri-State vice president Ed Long Jr. to hand over his drawings for the project. Unfamiliar with IBS, Long declined and called officials in the district's information technology department, who said they would investigate.

Those officials, sources said, subsequently instructed Tri-State to defer to IBS, which was paid $12,980.

The Inquirer has reconstructed what transpired over the last three months as the project for the persistently dangerous schools got under way, based on interviews, e-mails, district documents, contracts, and corporate records. All the contractors in the project who were contacted declined to comment. Here is that account:

On Thursday, Sept. 2, just before Labor Day weekend, Deputy Superintendent Leroy D. Nunery II convened a meeting of senior district officials to discuss concerns about an impending release of a school-safety study from the state Department of Education. The purpose of the meeting, the sources said, was to formulate a plan to deflect any adverse publicity by showing that the district was already aggressively addressing school violence.

Nunery and others decided that replicating the South Philadelphia surveillance system at 19 more schools would be persuasive evidence that the district was taking strong, proactive measures.

Late the next afternoon, according to sources, Amy McCole, the district's senior information technology project manager, called Kenneth R. Spressart, vice president of sales for Security & Data Technologies Inc. in Newtown Township, and asked him to be in her office the Tuesday morning after the holiday weekend.

McCole, according to the sources, asked Spressart to develop an expedited proposal to replace all cameras in the 19 schools and create new command centers and link them to district headquarters at 440 N. Broad St. In a second phase, SDT would create a blueprint for adding cameras as money became available.

SDT was on the approved vendor list, in contrast to IBS.

Spressart, according to the sources, went to work immediately. He visited every site, marking up district specifications to show what equipment would be needed and where it would be placed. SDT made a rough estimate that the entire project would cost $4.5 million to $6 million. The estimate was later increased based on internal district discussions.

As SDT moved ahead with urgency in its site inspections, school officials were debating how to present the $7.5 million proposal to the School Reform Commission. Professional staffers believed the most effective and transparent method of presenting the project, using vendors from the state's approved list, would be through a detailed resolution to the SRC at its voting meeting Sept. 22.

Because the work was to begin before the SRC's next meeting in October, staffers recommended adding a resolution to the agenda that already had been drafted. But e-mails to Nunery, requesting his approval for the "walk-on resolution," were ignored, the sources said.

The next day, Sept. 23, at 5 p.m., Ackerman summoned several key aides to her conference room for a meeting that focused on the dangerous-schools plan. At the meeting, sources said, Ackerman declared that the emergency work in December at South Philadelphia had been too extensive and too expensive. The contractors had installed too many cameras, she said, adding that she didn't want the new camera project done the same way.

Ackerman then issued her orders, the sources said: IBS was to receive the emergency contract to guarantee the work would be completed on time and on budget.

The next morning, McCole called SDT and told company officials they had to return the marked-up drawings the firm had been using to plan the placement of cameras and the network links to new command centers in each school. Don't ask any questions, McCole said, according to sources.

Efforts to reach McCole were unsuccessful; Spressart declined to comment.

The issue confronting Ackerman's staff was how to secure SRC approval of the project most effectively. Instead of using the walk-on resolution, procurement chief Byars devised a plan to introduce the funding under the procurement umbrella, sources said. As a result, the $7.5 million directed to IBS appeared as Exhibit A on the seventh and final page of the procurement resolution, presented to the SRC at its Oct. 13 planning session. The SRC was asked to ratify the award because work had begun.

At that meeting, Ackerman spoke briefly about the importance of the project, noting that "camera enhancements were needed at persistently dangerous schools."

"That was discussed," she said, "at the SRC presentation group Project Safe Schools." The work, she said, had to commence before the next SRC meeting because of the tight timetable.

Commission Chairman Robert L. Archie Jr. asked her, "How many schools are considered persistently dangerous?"

Ackerman said there were 20 (including South Philadelphia), and she reminded Archie that the commissioners had heard about the need for improved surveillance.

A week later, at its voting meeting, the commission approved the $7.5 million award to IBS.

Byars and others then began drafting a contract for the work and exchanging drafts with Boozer and his attorney, according to sources. In a significant departure, the project no longer calls for security cameras to be linked to district headquarters.

On Nov. 15, sources said, hours after Inquirer reporters contacted SDT to ask questions about the dangerous-schools project, McCole informed her supervisors that SDT had called to alert her to The Inquirer's interest.

Late that afternoon, Ackerman and Nunery convened a meeting to discuss the situation and how to handle the potential public reaction to a story. Nunery, according to the sources, asked for detailed information about all school district business SDT was receiving. If SDT's president, Jerry Paley, protested the new contract, Nunery said - according to the sources - he would make sure SDT did not receive any district work in the future.

Kemp denied that account and said Nunery had told her that SDT would be able to continue to submit bids. Nunery declined to comment.

Kemp said IBS had been chosen based on its work at South Philadelphia and its lower cost estimates.

"This is at a fraction of the costs we were charged at one school back in December," she said. "This is a no-brainer."