Philadelphia School Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman, grappling with a budget gap of $434 million for the next fiscal year, is about to hire at least one lobbying firm - and perhaps more - to "help educate" state legislators and trumpet the district's "innovative reform programs and impressive successes."
The district has a $234,000 contract with a lobbying firm that expires next month, but it appears to be expanding its lobbying efforts.
A letter from Ackerman and her boss, School Reform Commission Chairman Robert L. Archie Jr., accompanies a request for proposals sent to "prospective partners." It says the district "is seeking an agency, individual, or organization to support the district's growing governmental relations operation in Harrisburg . . . and Washington, D.C."
The lobbying plan appears to be moving forward on an expedited timetable. The letter is dated Dec. 20, and the proposals were due at 2 p.m. Thursday.
State Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware) called the effort ill-timed, misguided, and too expensive. Instead of spending money on public relations, he said, the Philadelphia School District should be dedicating its money to educating students.
"This shows a fundamental lack of connection with reality," Pileggi said, "considering the financial predicament that the School District finds itself in."
"Those funds would be better used to improve educational performance. The city has a large delegation and a mayor, who can effectively make the case for the city's schools."
The district is heavily dependent on state aid. About 55 percent of its $3.2 billion budget comes from the state, and the governor appoints three of the five members of the SRC, which oversees the district.
"While we are sensitive to the opinions of state legislators, we assert that we continue to practice good stewardship of the taxpayers' dollars," Shana Kemp, a district spokeswoman, said in a statement Friday evening.
Since May 2009, the district has been paying Maven Inc., a city consulting firm run by Melonease Shaw, to lobby state legislators. In a contract the SRC amended and extended several times, Maven is authorized to receive up to $234,000 through Feb. 28.
However, the seismic shift in political power in Pennsylvania state government resulting from the November elections means that Shaw, who has close ties to State Rep. Dwight Evans, may no longer be as effective a power broker as she had been.
Evans, a Democrat from West Oak Lane, was chairman of the House Appropriations Committee until fellow Democrats ousted him Nov. 16. His removal, along with the election of a Republican governor, Tom Corbett, and Republican majorities in the state Senate and House, means Philadelphia will no longer have the clout in Harrisburg it enjoyed for the last eight years.
"Recognizing the change of administration in Harrisburg and a new legislative body in Washington, D.C., the School District is taking aggressive, proactive steps to ensure that the School District's story is being told," Kemp said in the district statement. "We feel the need to engage government-relations professionals who are in Harrisburg full time who can help us to tell our story. These professionals understand that these are taxpayer dollars, so they are sensitive to the fact that these funds need to be spent appropriately."
Kemp said that district officials were still reviewing the proposals, and that no decision had been made. She said she didn't know how many responses the district had received.
State Rep. James Roebuck (D., Phila.), the senior Democrat on the House Education Committee, with 25 years of experience, said there was "a reasonable argument to be made for a new approach in terms of governmental relations."
The city's charter schools and parochial schools have lobbyists in Harrisburg, he said, adding that he had routinely met with lobbyists for school districts in Harrisburg and Pittsburgh as well as Philadelphia.
In addition to Pileggi, two other Philadelphia-area legislators assailed Ackerman's efforts on the lobbying front.
State Rep. Michael P. McGeehan, who has criticized Ackerman over her role in awarding a $7.5 million no-bid, emergency contract for school surveillance cameras, said he was flabbergasted.
"This administration under Arlene Ackerman has exactly zero credibility in Harrisburg," the Democrat from Northeast Philadelphia said. "The way they've handled the South Philadelphia High School crisis, the no-bid contracts, and the suspension of six good School District employees, who may be whistle-blowers, the legislature has serious questions about the conduct of this administration. . . . This is throwing good money after bad."
State Rep. Paul Clymer (R., Bucks), chairman of the House Education Committee, said: "This is not the time to invest a very large outlay of School District funds to tell many of us what we already know. In this time of fiscal restraint, that money should be used to educate the children."
Clymer said the three school systems in his district did not employ lobbyists.
Pileggi was even blunter.
"The problems with the schools that have been reported regarding violence, truancy, violations in routine procurement procedures, these are things that putting lobbyists on the turnpike and pointing them toward Harrisburg will not resolve," he said. "If that is their best thinking, this is something that needs to be taken up with the SRC."
Chris Bravacos, president and chief executive officer of the Bravo Group, a public advocacy and lobbying company, said he agreed with Pileggi on the subject of lobbyists for government agencies.
Asked whether the district needed a paid lobbyist, Bravacos said: "I don't know that they do. There are some topics and issues - like the education of children - that transcend relationships, especially when it comes to a public entity."
Bravacos, who was a deputy secretary for legislative affairs under former Gov. Tom Ridge, worked closely on education issues during his years in the Ridge administration and has continued to since.
The district has employed lobbyists in the past. Shortly after the SRC was created in December 2001 to oversee the district, the commission, under founding Chairman James E. Nevels, hired Robert W. O'Donnell, a lawyer and former House speaker from Philadelphia, as a lobbyist.
O'Donnell acted as a district lobbyist for several years. In the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2007, he was paid $189,000 for lobbying and other services, district records show.
Over the last two months, Ackerman has had to confront a firestorm of adverse publicity. That began Nov. 28, when The Inquirer reported that she had interceded to award a $7.5 million, no-bid emergency contract to IBS Communications Inc., a small minority firm in Mount Airy, to install surveillance cameras in 19 schools classified by the state as "persistently dangerous."
In doing so, Ackerman pushed aside a company that had already begun visiting the schools and estimating the cost of the project.
Ackerman denied directing that IBS get the contract - even though she said in an interview that on a previous occasion, she had an IBS business card in her wallet and told a staff member to make sure that the company was included in a security project at South Philadelphia High School.
On Dec. 13, about two weeks after the story about Ackerman's interceding for IBS appeared in The Inquirer, six high-ranking district managers were suspended with pay. Their fate depends on an independent investigation into the disclosure of sensitive district documents and procurement practices.
Over the next two days, McGeehan and Clymer denounced the suspensions and said Ackerman was trying to muzzle employees who raised legitimate questions about the conduct of the administration.
Then, late last month, word leaked out that the School District's budget gap for the coming fiscal year totaled $434 million. That prompted Ackerman and Mayor Nutter to organize an impromptu news conference to discuss the district's fiscal problems. Since then, Ackerman has asked her department heads to formulate contingency plans with budget cuts of 20, 25, and 30 percent.
The lobbying effort is aimed at ensuring that state aid keeps flowing to the district.
The letter from Ackerman and Archie says the winning bidders will be responsible for arranging one-on-one meetings with legislators in Harrisburg and Washington, planning events and briefings, and providing updates to the SRC.
The five-page job description says the selection will be made through a process known as "informal competitive negotiation."
In contrast to strict competitive bidding, which requires awarding the work to the lowest responsible bidder, this process gives School District executives the maximum flexibility in selecting the firm or firms.
Maven, which has the current lobbying contract, has offices in several locations outside Philadelphia, including Washington. It was not known whether the firm had submitted a proposal for the expanded services. Shaw, who founded Maven in 2004, did not return phone calls to her office Friday.
Her company provides lobbying, marketing, business development, and "relationship management services." In addition to handling lobbying for the School District, Maven has had other district contracts. According to documents the district provided to The Inquirer over the summer in response to a right-to-know request, Maven had a $25,000 contract during the first half of 2009 to provide a communications strategy for the district that focused on reaching out to business, political, and community groups.
And after Ackerman was hired in May 2008, Shaw and her firm were paid $35,000 to act as an "on-boarding coach" to help Ackerman make the transition into the superintendent's job and introduce her to the Philadelphia area's political, business, and higher-education leaders.
The long list of clients on Maven's website includes Temple University; the City of Philadelphia; Foundations Inc., an educational company in Moorestown; Peco Energy Co.; and SugarHouse Gaming L.L.P.