The Philadelphia School District's quixotic legal defense of a racially driven contract award is threatening to become even more misguided, ham-fisted, and expensive than the original blunder.
A federal jury delivered the district's second resounding defeat stemming from the disputed security-camera contract this week, entering a $2.3 million judgment against the schools and the late Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, as the Inquirer's Martha Woodall and Jeremy Roebuck reported. After a weeklong trial, the jury found that Ackerman discriminated against a white-owned firm, Security & Data Technologies (SDT), by steering the emergency contract to an African American-owned firm, IBS Communications.
Fair representation of minority and female government contractors is widely accepted as a worthy goal, but Ackerman's means of pursuing it were dubious at best, as the case at hand underscored. While SDT had begun preliminary work and was approved for such no-bid contracts, the superintendent ordered that the $7.5 million job be redirected to IBS even though it was not so approved. The African American superintendent then explained to fellow administrators that she was tired of contracts going to "white boys," according to court documents, and wanted more of the district's vendors to look like her.
Ackerman's pursuit of that project was further complicated by the fact that the district had already exceeded its 20 percent contractor diversity goal. Moreover, the original contractor had agreed to subcontract much of the work to minority- and women-owned firms.
Instead of correcting its mistakes when they were exposed by the Inquirer, the Ackerman administration compounded them by launching a witch hunt for the newspaper's sources. In March, after a long, expensive, and utterly unsuccessful legal battle against Francis X. Dougherty, a former district administrator who was punished for speaking to reporters, the School Reform Commission agreed to pay Dougherty $725,000. Two more lawsuits by ex-employees are pending.
In addition to the $3 million owed to plaintiffs so far, the School District had paid the Tucker Law Group $1.6 million to handle cases related to the camera contract as of March. The district could also be forced to compensate SDT for its legal fees in the case it just lost - and, incredibly, has threatened to appeal.
School officials likely could have saved the impoverished district millions in fees and damages by acknowledging obvious wrongdoing and reaching settlements with those who were wronged. Before they spend more, the SRC and Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. should see to it that the district's legal strategy is overhauled, even if that means changing its legal representation.