A day after the Philadelphia School District suspended several senior managers, the chairman of the state House Education Committee on Tuesday assailed the decision to remove them and criticized School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman's administration for "making up the rules and regulations" on awarding contracts.
"That is absolutely wrong," said State Rep. Paul Clymer (R., Bucks), who has the power to conduct hearings on school operations. "These deals made behind closed doors are going to be history."
Clymer's blistering comments were in response to Ackerman's decision to push aside a Newtown company that had been selected to work on a $7.5 million project to install surveillance cameras at 19 persistently dangerous schools and instead to award the no-bid emergency contract to IBS Communications Inc., a small minority-owned firm based in Mount Airy.
"What has happened," Clymer said, "is pushing education and the image of the Philadelphia School District downward. It's just horrendous. For a school system that comes in here year in and year out wanting more funding, this is really so wrong. It's outrageous."
Six district employees - including two senior vice presidents - were suspended Monday with pay pending the outcome of an internal investigation.
Clymer said the suspended employees were heroes for standing up and identifying potential misconduct.
"There's a lot more to it than just the contracts that were misguided by Arlene Ackerman," he said. "There's a lot more that could be revealed if those employees were allowed to speak publicly."
In addition to his harsh words about Ackerman, Clymer questioned the effectiveness of the School Reform Commission (SRC), the five-member board appointed by the governor and mayor to oversee the School District. "What is the School Reform Commission doing?" he asked. "They shouldn't be sitting on the sideline."
Also on Tuesday, State Rep. Michael P. McGeehan (D., Phila.) asked Attorney General Tom Corbett to launch an immediate investigation of Ackerman's handling of the emergency no-bid contract. He also asked the governor-elect to make sure that the suspended employees were afforded the protection of the state's whistle-blower law.
In an interview Nov. 30 with The Inquirer, Ackerman admitted first directing a smaller project - worth $12,890 - to IBS. That contract, to produce schematic drawings of camera locations at South Philadelphia High School, ended up costing the district 12 times more than the original estimate.
As to the $7.5 million contract, Ackerman said she simply instructed her staff to guarantee that a minority-owned firm received a substantial portion of the work and that it was completed on time and on budget. The firm shunted aside - Security & Data Technologies Inc. - had begun preliminary work on the project when it was abruptly replaced.
Three of the six employees suspended are high-ranking district staff members: John L. Byars, senior vice president of procurement services; Francis Dougherty, a key aide to Deputy Superintendent Leroy D. Nunery II; and Patrick Henwood, senior vice president for capital programs. Two are top information technology staff members - Robert Westall, deputy chief information officer, and Melanie Harris, the department head. The identity of the sixth staffer was uncertain.
Clymer's Democratic counterpart on the education committee, James Roebuck of Philadelphia, said that he, too, recognized that, in the awarding of contracts, there had been "some failures to totally adhere to proper procedures."
But he said those missteps had to be balanced against the goal of having minority-company participation in school contracts becoming "second nature - naturally, seamlessly."
The School District has a legally mandated goal of awarding 20 percent of its business to companies owned by minorities and women.
As to the suspensions, Roebuck said there had to be not only concern about "protecting the rights of individuals" who believe their public employer is breaking the law, but also sensitivity about the improper "disclosure of confidential information."
That issue - the protection of whistle-blowers - was the primary focus of a news conference Tuesday morning, held outside School District headquarters at 440 N. Broad St. by McGeehan.
The lawmaker said he told Corbett in a hand-delivered letter that he was "gravely concerned" about the suspended staff members.
He urged them, and other district workers, to "disregard this veiled threat of retribution" for providing factual information about the workings of a public agency. At least one of the suspended employees, he said, has discussed the contracts with the FBI.
The School District issued a statement Tuesday saying it was conducting an internal investigation of its business and facilities operations.
The statement said the investigation was launched two weeks ago, around the time The Inquirer reported in a Nov. 28 article how Ackerman had twice intervened on behalf of IBS.
McGeehan said he was highly skeptical of the district's inquiry because it was not focused on Ackerman's conduct.
"Any investigation that doesn't involve the superintendent," he said, "isn't worth the paper it's written on."
Based on his conversation with one of the suspended employees - he declined to identify the person by name - McGeehan said he believed the true purpose of the investigation was to pinpoint the sources of The Inquirer's articles.
The newspaper's reporting was based on interviews with unnamed sources who have extensive experience in School District operations, and on documents they provided. The sources asked not to be identified because they were fearful that disclosing their names could jeopardize their jobs.
Michael Davis, the district's general counsel, released a short statement after McGeehan's sidewalk news conference.
While acknowledging he appreciated McGeehan's interest, Davis said: "This does not appear to be a case where an employee went to the press to report illegal activity by which someone inside the district committed fraud or obtained some financial gain."
He said the district had brought in outside counsel to conduct an inquiry because of the importance of the issue. Based on "standard practice," he said, "certain members of the staff have been placed on paid administrative leave while the investigation is conducted."