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Lawmaker asks for state audit of Philly School District

State Rep. Michael McGeehan (D., Phila.) on Tuesday asked the state auditor general to conduct "a full and complete forensic audit" of the Philadelphia School District's procurement practices.

State Rep. Michael McGeehan (D., Phila.) on Tuesday asked the state auditor general to conduct "a full and complete forensic audit" of the Philadelphia School District's procurement practices.

McGeehan made the request after determining that the district had provided the state Department of Education with an inadequate explanation of how it had awarded a $7.5 million no-bid emergency contract for school surveillance cameras.

Thomas E. Gluck, the state's acting secretary of education, made a similar request of the auditor general Tuesday, although Gluck asked only for a detailed examination of the $7.5 million contract to IBS Communications Inc., a minority-owned company based in Mount Airy.

"I'm frustrated," McGeehan said, "that an agency that depends so heavily on state funds hasn't been fully responsive to an elected official. It's perplexing, and it raises questions with the public as to whether we're getting straight answers."

The state provides an estimated $1.68 billion of the School District's $3.2 billion annual budget.

School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, according to sources with extensive knowledge of district business, interceded to push aside a company that had been asked by district staffers to begin work on the project and ordered that IBS get the job.

Ackerman said she did nothing other than directing her staff to make sure that a minority firm shared in the work.

School District spokeswoman Shana Kemp said district officials would not have any comment because of an internal investigation being conducted by outside counsel, Michael A. Schwartz of the Pepper Hamilton law firm.

Gluck asked the auditor general to take a deeper look at the $7.5 million contract after receiving a Dec. 17 letter from Michael A. Davis, the district's general counsel.

Davis' letter provides the School District's most detailed and coherent account of how IBS ended up with the work, despite the district staff's recommendation that the contract be awarded to Security & Data Technologies Inc. (SDT) of Newtown Township.

SDT was on a state-approved list of vendors qualified to perform the work; IBS was not. Davis said in his letter that some members of the district's school security contract team were operating under the mistaken belief that they had to use a contractor on the state list.

According to Davis, Ackerman and Deputy Superintendent Leroy B. Nunery II became involved after they learned that the district team assigned to the expedited project to install surveillance cameras at 19 persistently dangerous high schools was preparing a "walk-on" resolution for presentation to the School Reform Commission (SRC), the five-person commission that oversees district operations. Because neither Nunery nor Ackerman had seen the resolution, Davis said, "Ackerman decided to withdraw the resolution from the SRC agenda."

In a meeting Sept. 23 with the school-safety team, Ackerman asked whether a minority vendor was involved, and mentioned IBS because of work it had done in December 2009 at South Philadelphia High School.

"Although the team was not directed to award a contract singularly to IBS, that is what the district team did," Davis wrote. "In fact, Dr. Nunery had suggested to the team that it consider splitting up the work and awarding it to more than one contractor."

Davis' account of the award to IBS differs from that provided by sources with extensive experience in School District business. Those sources said – and documents affirm – that at least two e-mails were sent to Nunery in advance of the proposed "walk-on" resolution.

One memo to Nunery, dated Sept. 17, five days before the SRC meeting, begins: "The purpose of this memorandum is to seek your approval for a walk-on resolution for the SRC voting session. . . . Because work on the persistently dangerous schools will commence before the next October round of SRC resolutions, a walk-on is the only option to avoid a potentially controversial ratification."

The next morning at 10:32, another aide to Nunery sent the deputy superintendent an e-mail endorsing the proposal and saying, ". . . I recommend that we make this a walk-on resolution for Wednesday and brief the SRC accordingly."

As for the issue of who directed that the contract be awarded to IBS, sources say Ackerman made the decision; she has vigorously denied this. Nunery, during an interview with The Inquirer last month, said it was he, not Ackerman.

Davis' letter does not squarely address that issue, but it implies that it was the school-safety team, the group that originally recommended SDT, that made the decision to give all the work to IBS. Efforts to reach Davis on Tuesday were unsuccessful.