Speaking publicly for the first time about emergency, no-bid contracts at dangerous city schools, School Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman acknowledged that she personally directed her staff to guarantee a small minority firm a share of $700,000 in security work at South Philadelphia High School.
That contract with IBS Communications Inc. - for $12,890 to produce schematic drawings - ended up costing the district more than 12 times the estimate from the company that installed the cameras at the school.
Ackerman recalled in an interview Tuesday evening that she instructed her staff at the outset of the project last December to "make sure there are minority contractors involved." When she learned that the project, executed over a weekend, was done without any minority companies, she said, she handed an IBS business card to her staff and told them to "find some work" for IBS.
"I knew IBS was doing work for the city," Ackerman said, adding that if she had had three business cards for minority firms, she would have given all three to her aides.
More recently, IBS received a $7.5 million, no-bid emergency contract to install surveillance cameras and command control centers at 19 other Philadelphia schools classified as "persistently dangerous" after another company had already begun work on the project.
Ackerman said the work given to IBS demonstrated that she was steadfastly committed to guaranteeing that companies owned by minorities and women received a significant share of district work.
"We're trying to break a culture that is hurtful in many ways," Ackerman declared. Too many contractors with years of experience working in city schools feel automatically entitled to district business, she said.
"Change is hard," she said. "People have benefited from this system, and it's not fair, and it's not equitable. People are going to be mad at me and the SRC," she said, referring to the School Reform Commission. "There are the 'haves' and the 'have-nots.' "
Ackerman and her deputy Leroy B. Nunery II emphasized that IBS had done exemplary work for the district so far. "We know we have a good company here," said Nunery, one of several senior aides who joined Ackerman in the interview Tuesday at school headquarters at 440 N. Broad St. "This is a demonstration project for them."
Nunery said he - not Ackerman - had made the decision two months ago to award the $7.5 million contract to IBS.
Sources with extensive knowledge of district operations said in interviews with The Inquirer that Ackerman personally had ordered her subordinates to remove a contractor - Security & Data Technologies Inc. (SDT) of Newtown Township, which already had begun working on the project, and give the work to IBS.
When Nunery was asked about who had made the decision, he at first declined to answer, adding that he was not "trying to be combative."
Was the decision made by the school district's chief procurement officer? Nunery was asked. "No," he replied.
Asked whether he thought taxpayers had a right to know who was making decisions about how to spend $7.5 million in public money, he replied: "You can say I made the decision."
When asked to clarify his response, Nunery said: "I made the decision."
This was the third time in the last week that district officials have offered explanations and amplifications about the two awards to IBS:
Last week, Shana Kemp, a district spokeswoman, said Ackerman had not played any role in selecting IBS for the $7.5 million contract. Kemp said John L. Byars, executive director of procurement services, had approved it.
On Monday, Nunery issued a two-page statement, saying he and Ackerman "undertook a thorough review" of a proposed resolution that would have awarded the $7.5 million contract to SDT, a company owned by white businessmen - a "majority" company in the parlance of the school district. As a result of that review, they decided the prime contractor on the camera project should be a minority vendor.
Ackerman said she had moved to replace SDT after discovering that a company that installed cameras at South Philadelphia High School - Tri-State Telecommunications of Bristol - was a subcontractor on the project.
She complained that Tri-State had overcharged the district and installed far more cameras than were required.
"It didn't feel right. . . . That was the end of it for me."
Ed Long Jr., vice president of Tri-State, said no one from the district had ever complained about his firm's work at South Philadelphia.
"The only thing that we heard was positive feedback," said Long, whose company is an approved women's business enterprise.
He said school police had determined the number and placement of the cameras. And he said the project had cost more than $700,000 because Ackerman had ordered it done over a weekend. As a result, Long said, crews worked round the clock to complete the project.
In contrast to Ackerman's criticism of Tri-State, sources with extensive experience in district business operations said, the superintendent at internal school district meetings had described the South Philadelphia project as a "model" - a project that would set the standard for surveillance equipment at the 19 other dangerous schools.
Instead, Ackerman told her staff to select the best minority contractor available to do the work on time and on budget, and IBS ended up with the job.
Asked whether she knew Darryl Boozer, IBS's chief executive and owner, Ackerman replied that she knew him "slightly," describing their relationship as "casual, professional."
She said she had been given an IBS card at a function but did not recall when or where. District spokeswoman Jamilah Fraser said that wherever she goes, Ackerman is given cards. She saves them all and remembered the IBS card when staff members told her they did not know minority firms that installed security cameras.
Ackerman said she had pushed the project to enhance security at the 19 schools - among them Frankford, Olney, and Simon Gratz High Schools - after learning the results of a school-safety audit by the state Department of Education.
Had she ignored the safety issue or taken the time to seek bids, "if something had happened, we would have been in the papers for failing to act," she said.
Michael Davis, the district's chief general counsel, has begun an internal investigation of the decision-making process that led to the original staff recommendation to award SDT the contract.
Ackerman said she had been perturbed when she learned staff had drafted a walk-on resolution for the Sept. 22 SRC meeting to award a contract to install the surveillance systems. The SRC, she said, had made it clear that such resolutions, which are added after the regular meeting agenda has been drafted, give commissioners little time to review documents and should rarely be used.
The measure was pulled, and the next day, Sept. 23, Ackerman said, she summoned top aides to a meeting to ask: "Why did this happen? . . . I was for sure upset. I didn't know about it, and Lee [Nunery] didn't."
In fact, a school district e-mail reviewed by The Inquirer shows that a request to approve the SDT proposal had been sent to Nunery on Sept. 17. The e-mail - provided by sources outside the district - outlined the rationale for the walk-on resolution in a five-page attachment.
"It is the collective belief of the Capital, Information Technology, Climate and Safety, and Facilities Departments that the aforementioned plan will achieve the objectives sought under Project: Safe Schools," it said.
"The sheer size of the $7.5 million camera project as well as the urgency of this situation calls for invoking a rare walk-on resolution for the Sept. 22 SRC voting session."
Over the next five days, at least two district administrators e-mailed Nunery to ask about the status of the proposed resolution but received no replies, sources said.
In response to an Inquirer question about the e-mail Wednesday, district spokeswoman Fraser said Nunery had told her that the e-mail could have landed in his in-box Sept. 17, but that he still insisted he had first heard about the proposed resolution Sept. 23.
In Tuesday's interview, Ackerman said she also had been angry that the proposed resolution called for SDT to be the primary contractor and Tri-State to be the subcontractor, asserting that that was the reverse of the South Philadelphia project. It was the same two "majority" companies, she said, "only flip-flopped."
Tri-State's Long denied Ackerman's assertion. SDT, he said, had not been involved at South Philadelphia.
As with the South Philadelphia contract, Ackerman said, she wanted to know why IBS had not been given a chance and whether any other minority contractors were involved.
The superintendent said she had told staff she would not move forward with the project until her questions were answered.
"On Sept. 23, that is where I left it," Ackerman said. "It was Lee's job and others' to make it right."
Ackerman acknowledged that the district's original timeline for the emergency project had called for the work to be completed by Nov. 30. But the contract awarded to IBS runs through June 30, a completion date seven months later.
So far, work has been completed at six of the 19 schools.