State Rep. Michael P. McGeehan on Monday accused Philadelphia School District Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman of suspending whistle-blowers who had made public details about controversial no-bid contracts.
McGeehan said he would request that the state Attorney General's Office investigate possible violations of the state's whistle-blower protections.
The Northeast Philadelphia Democrat said that five district employees, whom he declined to identify, were notified in writing Monday afternoon that they were being suspended with pay pending an investigation into the disclosure of sensitive school district documents.
On Monday evening, the school district issued a statement saying that an "outside expert" had been brought in to investigate business operations.
"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," the district said in the statement.
The outside expert was not named.
The statement said an investigation had been started two weeks ago, but it turned out to be more complex than expected, so the district turned to the outside expert. The announcement, the statement said, was made by district general counsel Michael Davis after consultation with School Reform Commission Chairman Robert L. Archie Jr.
The first Inquirer story about the contracts appeared Nov. 28.
Shana Kemp, a spokeswoman for the district, was asked to elaborate on the statement, the investigation by the outside expert, and McGeehan's assertions. Kemp declined comment, but then issued another written statement that read, "The School District of Philadelphia has brought in an outside expert to conduct an in-depth investigation of the District's Business and Facilities Operations. Some staff members have been placed on administrative leave, with pay, while the investigation is being conducted. Due to privacy issues, we are unable to give any additional specifics about personnel matters."
McGeehan said it was his understanding, based on conversations with district employees, that the outside investigation would focus on employees who shared internal information with "the news media and law enforcement."
At McGeehan's request, the state's acting secretary of education has requested information about why Ackerman 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."
McGeehan said previously that an investigation was needed to find out if procurement rules had been broken.
"I still don't know, frankly, the correct story," McGeehan said Monday night, "because Dr. Ackerman's story has changed so many times."
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 she took 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 had been completed, the only work remaining was producing schematic drawings. IBS was paid $12,890 for the drawings - more than 12 times the estimate from the company that installed the cameras at the school.