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Pa. Education Department wants answers from Ackerman about camera contract

Pennsylvania's acting secretary of education wants the Philadelphia School District to answer questions about the emergency, no-bid contracts awarded to a Philadelphia minority firm for surveillance cameras in dangerous city schools.

Thomas Gluck, the state's acting education secretary, left, will ask the Philadelphia School District to answer questions about the controversial, no-bid contracts that Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, right, ordered be awarded to a minority firm in the city.
Thomas Gluck, the state's acting education secretary, left, will ask the Philadelphia School District to answer questions about the controversial, no-bid contracts that Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, right, ordered be awarded to a minority firm in the city.Read more

Pennsylvania's acting secretary of education wants the Philadelphia School District to answer questions about the emergency, no-bid contracts awarded to a Philadelphia minority firm for surveillance cameras in dangerous city schools.

"We're asking the school district for the facts," Steven Weitzman, spokesman for acting Secretary Thomas Gluck, said Thursday. "Based on the response, we will take it from there."

He said Gluck was sending a letter to the district.

State Rep. Mike McGeehan (D., Phila.) had sent Gluck a letter Wednesday, asking him to launch an investigation to determine whether district officials disregarded state procurement rules in a sudden switch of vendors, as The Inquirer reported Sunday.

McGeehan said he wanted to know why the administration of School Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman had abruptly replaced Security & Data Technologies Inc. of Newtown Township with a Philadelphia firm, IBS Communications Inc., on a $7.5 million project to install surveillance cameras and control command centers at 19 district schools that have been labeled "persistently dangerous."

The money comes from the federal Build America Bond program, part of the federal stimulus effort. It helps local and state governments borrow money for capital programs more cheaply.

McGeehan said he was concerned that the district's handling of the $7.5 million project might have violated the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and he has asked Gluck to look into that as part of his inquiry.

He has also asked the acting secretary to determine "what violations were incurred" by awarding the contract to IBS, which was not on the state list of vendors that qualified for emergency work or retained under an emergency contract with the district.

In addition to the Education Department investigation, the school district Inspector General's Office opened an inquiry into the contracts Monday, sources said.

Last December, Ackerman ordered her staff to give IBS a share of a more than $700,000 project to upgrade security and make other improvements at South Philadelphia High School. She said Tuesday that she had taken the action because her staff had not involved minority contractors in the project as she had directed.

Ackerman said she had known about IBS, which had not previously done work for the district, because she had been given one of the company's business cards at a function.

Because the project's construction phase was completed, the only work remaining was producing schematic drawings of the surveillance system. IBS was paid $12,890 for the drawings - more than 12 times the estimate from the company that installed the cameras at the school.

Although sources with extensive knowledge of the district's business operations have said Ackerman selected IBS for the $7.5 million project, Deputy Superintendent Leroy B. Nunery II said Tuesday evening that he had chosen the firm.

He and Ackerman have defended the contracts and said the awards to IBS were part of the district's effort to increase the number of contracts awarded to minority companies.

The district's top officials also have said the district has broad powers to award projects to vendors in emergencies that justified giving work to IBS.

Though the company was not on the list of state-approved vendors, district officials said IBS was on the city's list of authorized companies.

Ackerman has said the district needed to move swiftly to upgrade surveillance systems after obtaining results of safety audits the state Education Department conducted at the district's most dangerous schools.