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Quest for contract documents became summer-long ordeal

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

With this Fall 2006 edition examining the School District’s increased reliance on educational service contracts with outside companies, the Public School Notebook had the perfect opportunity to conduct a test – how forthcoming and open would the District be with key information about contracts? We were seeking answers to important questions: who gets how much money, why they get it, and what results they are achieving.

We began our quest for information in early July, but before long it became apparent that getting answers would not be easy. The effort to secure documents from the District was slowed by disorganization, understaffing, poor record-keeping, and, apparently, resistance.

We were shuttled from the Office of Communications office to the General Counsel, asked to resubmit requests, filed a formal appeal, and still waited for weeks for contracts – indisputably public information – to be produced. The waiting continued even after CEO Paul Vallas issued a directive to staff: “Turn everything over ASAP.”

But if you count the large files we received just a day or two before we went to press, the District staff ultimately did put together substantial responses to nearly all the Notebook’s two dozen requests.

“We’re hoping in the future the process will be more conducive to giving reporters contract information,” said Cecilia Cummings, District senior vice president of communications and community relations. She said that with the appointment of a permanent head of the District’s legal office in September, the District will work on smoothing its procedures for handling public records requests.

Cummings acknowledged that “withholding of information that is obviously part of public record is simply not acceptable,” and said that mix-ups and staff overload got in the way even though CEO Vallas “wanted you guys to get the materials as soon as possible.”

Our democracy is built upon the principle that newspapers have reasonable access to information. In our role as a community newspaper, the Notebook is premised on the understanding that meaningful school reform cannot occur without informed public participation and discussion of education issues.

But informed participation requires transparency; it is hard to have community discussion of school improvement if key information about what is going on is kept secret.

In a recent report titled Time to Engage, the local nonprofit group Research for Action noted a lack of transparency in the contracting process in Philadelphia.

The authors noted: “The process of developing and approving contracts has been largely hidden from public view. The public plays no role in choosing which firms or organizations will receive contracts, and because conversations about these contracts take place almost entirely outside of public view, it has little understanding of the rationale behind particular choices.”

Here is a chronology of what happened:

  • On July 5, the Notebook compiled a 13-point request for documents relating to six outside school managers whose contracts expire next spring and submitted it to the School District’s Office of Communications, which handles public relations for the administration and is the system’s point of contact for journalists.
  • Two weeks later, District communications director Fernando Gallard asked the Notebook to resubmit it formally following the procedure laid out in Pennsylvania’s “Right-to-Know” law, explaining that District lawyers insisted on that. The Notebook complied the same day.
  • With lawyers now involved, two more weeks went by without a response. At an August 4 interview with interim General Counsel Miles Shore, we told him that the School District was out of compliance with the Right-to-Know law’s requirements for timely response.
  • The following week, the Notebook submitted three more formal letters requesting sets of documents relating to other large vendors such as Princeton Review.
  • On August 15, still without a single document, the Notebook filed a formal appeal to CEO Vallas, as the law permits when a request is deemed to be denied. By the next day, there was some movement – an invitation from attorney Shore to view two of the contracts we had requested. But there was hesitation about everything else.
  • On August 17 came word that CEO Vallas instructed staff to comply with all our requests.
  • Though the CEO had spoken, two more weeks went by … and still nothing – not even an explanation. Our deadlines were upon us, and none of our writers covering local contracts had all the documents they needed for their stories. The Friday afternoon before Labor Day weekend, I placed an angry phone call to the District demanding a few key documents I thought could be produced immediately. CEO Vallas got word that there had been no progress and took action, even calling one employee back to her office late Friday afternoon to retrieve some papers. Finally, we received an additional stack of documents.

From that point on, District communications tackled the backlog of documents on a more consistent basis. But now facing the competing demands of school opening, the downsized central office was clearly stretched thin and needed daily prodding.

After all that, the documents we secured were often disappointing. School Reform Commission resolutions failed to explain why that particular contractor was chosen. No documentation at all turned up about an SRC-mandated survey of parent satisfaction with school managers; perhaps it never was conducted.

Ultimately, even once we had gained the cooperation of the District in securing information, it became apparent that the record-keeping on contactors and their performance is too haphazard to yield a full picture of its impact and efficacy. That is truly troubling indeed.