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In school contracts, process is the problem

The goal of diversity doesn't justify every means.

By Christopher Paslay

How far should city leaders go in the name of equality and justice? Judging by the Philadelphia School District's reported efforts to give a contract to a minority-owned firm, it seems district leaders believe in giving minorities business by any means necessary.

According to recent reports in The Inquirer, the firm Security & Data Technologies Inc. had begun work on installing security cameras in persistently dangerous schools. Abruptly and with little explanation, however, district officials decided to terminate that contractor's services and go with IBS Communications Inc., a minority-owned company.

The stories suggest that Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and other district leaders failed to follow proper procedures when they switched firms. Nor did the district solicit competitive bids for the work, which it claimed was an emergency.

This was the second time the school district had directed work to IBS. The first time, it ended up paying more than 12 times the $1,000 estimate offered by a competing firm.

This week, State Rep. Michael P. McGeehan (D., Phila.) said the district may have also violated the state's whistle-blower protections by suspending six employees who allegedly went to the media with sensitive information about district contracts.

Policies designed to award more contracts to minority- and women-owned businesses are controversial, but many believe they have their place. Some argue that because the playing field has not been level for minorities in Philadelphia, there must be guidelines in place to help people of all races succeed.

However, the leaders of a 21st-century city should not be adopting an affirmative-action policy that gives minorities business by any means necessary. The result is a setback for everyone involved - damaging the reputations of hardworking minority firms, embittering competing vendors, and diminishing the public trust. It's also an embarrassment to the Philadelphia School District and the city as a whole.

Unfortunately, though, that seems to be exactly the sort of policy the district was pursuing when it abruptly switched security vendors. It appears to have bent rules and followed unusual procedures in the name of leveling the playing field.

Interestingly, it didn't seem to matter that minorities are already well-represented in Philadelphia's power structure. The superintendent, the deputy superintendent, the School Reform Commission chairman, the president of the Philadelphia teachers' union, the mayor, and the district attorney are all African American, and more than 85 percent of Philadelphia's public-school students and parents are minorities.

Tragically, when allegations of the district's wrongdoing were made known, there was little immediate outcry or disapproval. In fact, city leaders and clergymen praised the district for its questionable practices.

At a School Reform Commission meeting last week, chairman Robert L. Archie Jr., Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, and Philadelphia NAACP president J. Whyatt Mondesire all defended the district's decision to give contracts to minority firms by whatever means. Even Mayor Nutter issued a statement of support.

There are indeed haves and have-nots in this country, but the goal of social justice does not give public officials license to break rules. Two wrongs will never make a right, no matter how sinful America's past is.

"We're trying to break a culture that is hurtful in many ways," Ackerman said in an interview with The Inquirer, referring to her determination to end a system that favors white contractors over minority-owned businesses. Many believe this is an admirable goal. But such goals must be achieved by honest, upstanding means.