THERE ARE legitimate concerns about whether Superintendent Arlene Ackerman broke the rules when she made sure a minority business got a $7.5 million no-bid contract to install security cameras, which in effect booted off a contractor who had already started the job.

On the other hand, given that we are in Philadelphia, we can't help wondering if some of the hue and cry over the way Ackerman steered a contract to a minority firm was not because she didn't follow established protocol . . . but because she did.

And we don't mean the formal, state-approved procedure, but the informal friends-family-and-cronies contracting protocol that has dominated the city for decades, and resulted in an abysmal record of minority participation in the city.

From gaming to the governor's office, from the Senate to the Supreme Court, leaders have made sure their own cronies have reaped the lion's share of benefits for decades. Those cronies historically have been predominantly white. So why is it that when the cronies and friends are black, the practice is suddenly controversial?

Even under the administration of the city's two previous black mayors, the record remained dismal. So amid the brickbats being thrown in this controversy, we can all acknowledge that neither blacks nor whites have figured out how to ensure fairness.

But fairness is at the heart of fixing the underrepresentation of minorities and women in city and school contracts, and the only way to be fair is to establish a process that is understood by and transparent to all. The grave economic injustices of the past were able to be carried out in part because the contracts were easily hidden; if you didn't know they were available, you couldn't bid for them.

The contract in which Ackerman interceded was a no-bid contract, done as an emergency basis, which allowed the district to sidestep the bidding process. But emergency contractors have to be on a state-approved list, and the firm she picked wasn't. (We further have to ask why the superintendent is making procurement decisions; at her level, she should be setting out expectations for the existing procurement department to do its job. The best way to show her impatience with the lack of diversity is to threaten to fire the person whose job it is to ensure that diversity, not to step in herself.)

The district has established a goal of awarding 20 percent of contracts to female- and minority-owned businesses; last fiscal year, the district exceeded that goal, with participation at 27.6 percent. While we agree with the hundreds of people who showed up at the School Reform Commission meeting to laud Ackerman's commitment to diversity, we also have to ask: Was the exception made for IBS Communication Inc., the minority firm that got the contract, to help the district meet its goals for this year? If so, Ackerman would have done herself and the district a favor by communicating this.

It's also worth noting that the city's students could get a positive view of their future prospects from seeing minority vendors working around the schools.

We won't achieve diversity until we level the playing field and assume that minority and majority companies have equal access to contracts.

If Ackerman doesn't get a pass on this one, neither should anyone else. *