The outrage expressed by the Republican head of a state legislative education committee to charges that Philadelphia schools chief Arlene Ackerman abused her authority to award a contract to a minority company was to be expected.
In fact, the only surprise is that it took a few weeks for State Rep. Paul Clymer (R., Bucks) to latch onto this story. GOP legislators always seem to be in the hunt for ammo to fire at a favorite target - the Philadelphia School District, which they see as a dysfunctional spendthrift that doesn't deserve its level of state funding.
The district has certainly given critics enough examples over the years of dubious spending and lackluster academic results. So, with a Republican governor about to take over amid a significant drop in the city's legislative clout, the last thing the district needed to do was to further diminish its reputation. But it has.
Ackerman can blame only herself for apparently making no political calculation about the consequences of her Sept. 23 decision to stop work already begun without a contract by a white-owned company so that a minority firm could be considered for the $7.5 million job. Security & Data Technologies Inc. subsequently found itself on unfamiliar turf, losing a no-bid school-district job to upstart IBS Communications Inc.
Ackerman says she didn't personally choose IBS, but she did recommend the minority-owned firm for a tiny piece of a $700,000 contract to install surveillance cameras at South Philadelphia High School a year ago. IBS did some wrap-up work and was paid nearly $13,000, 12 times more than another firm planned to charge.
Even had SDT been allowed to finish the larger job that it started - to install similar surveillance systems at 19 other "persistently dangerous" city schools - the no-bid contract would have been questionable.
Accounts show there was no real "emergency" requiring the district to skip bidding other than that it wanted a defense against an expected state report criticizing its efforts to make city schools safer. Had Ackerman bid the project, with an emphasis on minority participation, she might have avoided Clymer's wrath.
The chairman of the House Education Committee is on firm ground, though, in also criticizing Ackerman's suspension with pay of six district employees whom she apparently suspects of being the leaks for Inquirer articles detailing how SDT lost the $7.5 million contract to IBS. Whistle-blower laws were written to protect public employees from retaliation in trying to ensure the public knows how its tax dollars are spent. That appears to be the case here.
It is important for proper procedures and channels to be followed in operating any enterprise as large as the Philadelphia School District. But these employee suspensions suggest the type of autocratic domination that has become Ackerman's reputation.
Her action against the leak suspects also sends a message that she has something to hide. There can be no secrets when it comes to taxpayer money, even the federal stimulus funds apparently used for this project. Giving more work to minority companies is a worthy goal, but Ackerman's methods have made the district's relationship with the legislature worse.