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Plan would give Ackerman more sway over hiring Philadelphia School District contractors

The administration of School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has drafted a procurement policy that would diminish the role of professional staff and concentrate contracting power in her hands.

The administration of School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has drafted a procurement policy that would diminish the role of professional staff and concentrate contracting power in her hands.

Ackerman's deputy, Leroy D. Nunery II, circulated the initial draft to top administrators in an e-mail Nov. 21 with the subject line "RFP Process Enhancements."

Nunery has said the changes are needed to address disputes over other contracts, including scoring bias and other issues that triggered bid challenges and lawsuits.

Given the recent controversy surrounding contracting, including the district's award of a $7.5 million no-bid emergency contract, Nunery wrote, "I am instituting some revisions to the RFP process."

He ended the message by saying, "The School District of Philadelphia will strive to have a flawless and transparent procurement process."

The proposal also was discussed at a high-level staff meeting Dec. 6.

Shana Kemp, a district spokeswoman, said Nunery had declined to comment because no decision had been made to implement the proposal.

"There have been discussions, but there is nothing to discuss," Kemp said.

According to an outline of the plan, Ackerman and Nunery would be involved in every step of a far more protracted and complicated procurement process than the one now in use.

"It seems like the process that they're putting into place maximizes their flexibility," said William S. Keilbaugh, superintendent of Haverford Township schools.

But he said that even in a district the size of Haverford Township, which has an $86 million budget, he would not have the time to delve into the details of every bidding competition: "I don't know of any superintendent or deputy superintendent who knows whether these [requests for proposals] are right or wrong."

He added that "99.9 percent of the time, the business manager, with the solicitor's advice and hopefully a contracted expert, is going to tell me who has met the specifications."

In neighboring Lower Merion Township, with a school budget of $200 million, business manager Victor Orlando said the superintendent has only a peripheral role in procurement.

The process leading up to competitive bidding, Orlando said, relies almost entirely on the work of department directors, advised by the solicitor. After bids are received, the department head reviews the proposals with Orlando, and the two prepare a report for a panel of three school board members.

John Musso, executive director of the Association of School Business Officials International in Reston, Va., said the proposed process under Ackerman and Nunery appeared "to be pretty inclusive. It looks like the superintendent is involved in all levels of the process. That doesn't happen in some of the larger school systems."

Musso also emphasized that the process should make it clear that district specialists had an important role in developing criteria and evaluating requests for proposals (RFPs) - bid solicitations that lay out contract specifications.

The Inquirer shared the draft plan with current and former School District and city government managers, suburban school superintendents, and national experts on government procurement who have decades of experience in awarding public contracts.

Several of those interviewed, who have experience in Philadelphia, said the procedures could erode the independence of the review committees, which evaluate contract proposals, depending on how the plan was implemented. Unless safeguards were observed, they said, the plan could make it more likely that political considerations would supersede merit and economic factors.

Two sources who questioned the procurement procedures asked not to be identified because they work with the district or hope to secure city or district work.

Under the proposal, Ackerman, Nunery, or the district's procurement chief would select the chairs of all committees reviewing competitive bids and requests for proposals for services. They also would have veto power over committee members.

Once the committees analyzed and scored the proposals from prospective vendors, Ackerman and Nunery would review summaries of the recommendations before deciding whether to authorize the procurement department to proceed.

For projects worth more than $100,000, a second committee - which likely would include Nunery, the chief financial officer, and other top administrators - would conduct interviews, review finalists' presentations, and score their proposed final bid packages. This second committee would then submit its recommendation to Ackerman.

After her review, the district staffers would begin to negotiate contract terms, which would be presented to the School Reform Commission for a vote.

Although the draft mentions Ackerman and Nunery, district lawyers have said the names would have to be removed before the proposal is implemented, according to sources who did not want to be identified for fear of losing their jobs.

The draft also says staff who have worked with bidders or prospective service providers may be excluded from the review committee or barred from scoring that provider's bid.

In contrast to Nunery's proposal, the current procurement policy delegates the responsibility to professional staff, as is typical in school districts of all sizes. Officials in the departments that will purchase materials or services establish the committees that review proposals and bids.

The committees - made up of professional staff with expertise in the areas - evaluate the proposals, analyze bids, and score oral presentations. The group selects a recommended winning bidder.

Several district departments, including budget, procurement, and general counsel, must review and give an OK before a resolution is prepared for the SRC. At an executive review session, top administrators examine the proposal before deciding whether to place it on the SRC agenda for a vote.

A former manager with decades of experience in school district procurement said the second-level review committee for large projects could prolong a process that already "takes months."

Another veteran educator with leadership experience in Pennsylvania and New Jersey said it made no sense for a superintendent with responsibility for a $3.2 billion budget to review all bids and requests for proposals.

"There is no justifiable reason for a superintendent in an organization this size to be so directly involved in purchasing decisions," he said. "Given what she proposes to do, where is time for instructional leadership, since she'll be reviewing purchasing decisions all day, every day?"

The proposal comes while the district is grappling with criticism from companies owned both by whites and by minorities over the handling of contracts for high school custodial services, an online system for tracking job applicants, and management of the district's headquarters at 440 N. Broad St.

A Nov. 28 Inquirer story described how Ackerman overrode her professional staff and abruptly replaced a firm that had begun preliminary work on an emergency project to install security cameras in 19 schools deemed "persistently dangerous."

The contract ultimately went to IBS Communications Inc., a firm Ackerman had mentioned to her staff during an earlier project at South Philadelphia High School. She said she had produced its business card and told the staffers to "find some work" for the company.

IBS is not on the state list of approved contractors for emergency work, though the district says it is on the city list and that suffices.

Sources with extensive experience with the district's business operations have said Ackerman told staff to replace Security & Data Technologies Inc. of Newtown Township - which had begun preliminary work on the $7.5 million surveillance-camera project - and give the award to IBS, a minority-owned firm in Mount Airy.

Ackerman has denied she told staff to award the contract to IBS. She has said she only directed Nunery to make sure a minority company was involved.

SRC Chairman Robert L. Archie Jr. and others have said that those questioning the IBS contract oppose the district's effort to increase the number of minority- and women-owned companies that receive district contracts.

State Rep. Paul Clymer (R., Bucks), chairman of the House Education Committee, and State Rep. Michael P. McGeehan (D., Phila.) have sharply criticized Ackerman's handling of the IBS contract. McGeehan has asked state Attorney General Tom Corbett to launch an investigation.