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SRC report: Ackerman directed award of no-bid contract

The Philadelphia School Reform Commission has concluded that former Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman directed staff to award a controversial $7.5 million no-bid contract for surveillance cameras to a small minority firm in 2010.

The determination is included in a hearing officer's decision that upheld the 2011 firing of John L. Byars, the former top procurement official, for reasons unrelated to the camera project.

The SRC voted at its Nov. 15 meeting to adopt the findings and terminate Byars as of Mar. 24, 2011. His attorneys attached the hearing officers' nine-page findings of fact in documents filed in Common Pleas Court last Friday appealing the decision.

District spokesman Fernando Gallard said the district does not comment on pending litigation.

Ackerman, who left the district in August 2011, moved to Albuquerque, N.M. and set up an educational consulting firm. Friends and associates say she is seriously ill.

The hearing was scheduled after Byars challenged the SRC's plans to oust him in the spring of 2011. Gallard said state law gives the SRC authority to appoint a hearing officer to take testimony and hear evidence as he prepares proposed findings and conclusions of law. The findings are reviewed by the SRC before they are adopted.

In this case, the hearing officer's findings were based on testimony and documents presented over four days in 2011 and 2012.

His report concluded there was "substantial evidence" to support Byars' dismissal. Among the reasons cited were violating the district's ethics policy by setting up a business website and attempting to influence the award of a management contract for the district's headquarters at 440 N. Broad St.

The hearing officer, who is unnamed in the report, also found that Byars was among a group of administrators who met with Ackerman Sept. 23, 2010, to discuss the cameras. During that meeting she "instructed those present that IBS Communications Inc. should be awarded the contract for the surveillance camera project."

The officer found that Ackerman directed Byars to handle the matter and to put the contract on an upcoming SRC agenda for a vote.

The Inquirer first reported in November 2010 that Ackerman had steered the contract for surveillance cameras at 19 schools to IBS, a small minority firm then based in Mount Airy.

District officials have offered differing accounts of who pushed for IBS for the $7.5 million camera contract, but Ackerman has insisted she had not done so.

In January, Byars filed a civil rights, defamation and libel suit in U.S. District against Ackerman and several district officials. He alleges that he was made a "scapegoat" for the controversy that erupted after The Inquirer disclosed that Ackerman had pushed aside a suburban firm in favor of IBS.

Ackerman responded to the federal complaint in an e-mail to The Inquirer at that time.

"I did not direct any staff member (including Mr. Byars) to give the $7.5 million surveillance contract to IBS," Ackerman wrote in January. "I did ask questions about the diversity of the pool of contractors."

That suit is pending in federal court.

Byars, the executive director of procurement services, was among six administrators who were suspended with pay in December 2010, while the district conducted an internal inquiry into leaks of the IBS information.

The district has declined to release the report that was written about that inquiry. Michael A. Davis, the general counsel, has previously said it found "no evidence of wrong-doing" by Ackerman regarding IBS.