Amid a standing-room-only crowd Wednesday, School Reform Commission Chairman Robert L. Archie Jr. and a parade of witnesses, including business owners, educators, and legislators, praised School Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman's commitment to minority business and assailed The Inquirer's coverage of her decision to award a no-bid emergency $7.5 million contract for school safety.
"I do not believe that she steered work to any particular vendor as The Inquirer reported from unidentified sources," Archie said.
Archie also criticized The Inquirer for failing to provide the historical background of the school district's antidiscrimination policy, adopted in March 2003. And, he said, The Inquirer failed to report that the school district has set a goal that 20 percent of its contracts be awarded to firms owned by minorities and women for professional services, procurement, and design and construction work.
"There is still work to be done," Archie declared, "and I'd like to commend Dr. Ackerman for taking on this additional task . . . for implementing the SRC's antidiscrimination policy."
More than 400 people crowded into the second-floor auditorium for the commission's meeting at the school administration building at 440 N. Broad St. Downstairs, an additional 30 or more people who could not get into the packed room observed the session on a large projection screen that had been set up in the atrium.
Speakers including J. Whyatt Mondesire, president of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP, and Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds-Brown were fiery in their defense of Ackerman and blistering in their criticism of The Inquirer. Mondesire called the newspaper's headlines "contemptible" and said the NAACP was prepared to defend inclusion in "the boardroom, the courtroom, the living room - wherever there is a need."
On Nov. 28, The Inquirer, citing unnamed sources with extensive business experience with the school district, reported that the superintendent had interceded to remove a contractor that had begun surveying 19 persistently dangerous schools for the installation of surveillance cameras.
The work was then awarded to a minority-owned company, IBS Communications Inc., based in Mount Airy. Ackerman said in an interview that she had not directed that the work go to IBS, but rather had told her staff to make sure the best minority firm received the contract.
Lori Shorr, Mayor Nutter's chief education officer, read a statement that Nutter had sent from Chicago, where he was attending a meeting.
"I support Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and the Philadelphia School District's laudable efforts to increase the percentage of contracting opportunities awarded to disadvantaged businesses, including minority-owned businesses.
"My administration has strongly advocated for increasing the number and size of minority-owned businesses in Philadelphia. Only by developing a truly diverse economy in terms of employment and business ownership can the city achieve lasting prosperity."
He said developing minority businesses was one of the key elements of his economic-development strategy.
In all, 29 speakers who addressed the SRC during its five-hour meeting defended Ackerman, criticized The Inquirer's coverage, or both.
The Rev. Terrence Griffith, first vice president and political-action chairman of the Black Clergy of Philadelphia, said the news articles were part of a pattern of "constant attacks" by those with an agenda. "They have one agenda, and that is to ensure that this superintendent fails," he said.
One speaker from the community, Abdul Jabar, said he supported Ackerman and the SRC's efforts to increase contracts for minority firms. "Basically, this is an issue of concern to me because everywhere I turn in the public school district of Philadelphia I see contracts being held primarily by white-owned businesses. . . . The good-old-boy network has definitely been disturbed, and it needs to be examined and investigated for the misappropriation of citizens' tax dollars on a regular basis."
Also Wednesday, representatives from several charter schools pressed the commission to consider their requests to expand enrollment and add grades.
No action was taken at the meeting, the commission's monthly planning meeting.