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Outpouring of support for Supt. Ackerman

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

(UPDATED, 8:50 PM) An overflow crowd filled the School District auditorium today, as hundreds of supporters of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s stance on minority contracting turned out for what was to be a five-hour School Reform Commission’s meeting. The superintendent received a standing ovation and loud cheers from many in the crowd as she entered the room at 2:40 p.m. and praise from the overwhelming majority of the 40-plus speakers who delivered public testimony.

School Reform Commission Robert Archie’s opening 10-minute speech also drew cheers. Archie defended Ackerman’s efforts to support minority contracting and criticizing the Inquirer‘s coverage of the District’s award of a no-bid, $7.5 million contract on an emergency basis to IBS Communications, a minority business enterprise, to install security cameras in 19 schools. The District has disputed the accuracy of the story.

More than 25 speakers were on the agenda on related topics, such as "Response to IBS Procurement article" and "Economic Inclusion." Speakers backing Ackerman’s stance supporting the contract award to IBS included NAACP President Jerry Mondesire, State Rep. Ronald G. Waters, City Councilwoman Blondell-Reynolds-Brown, Rev. Kevin Johnson of Bright Hope Baptist Church, Sylvia Simms of Parent Power, and Rahim Islam of Universal Companies.

Extra seats and a cable TV hookup were set up in the atrium at 440 N. Broad, and dozens of people watched the meeting from there.

In his opening remarks, Archie emphasized that the District’s 20 percent goal for minority/woman-owned business participation has been in place since 2003, and that the superintendent was doing her job in trying to achieve that “aggressive” goal.

“I have absolute faith that Dr. Ackerman has been nothing but forthcoming in this situation,” Archie said, adding that he did not think the Inquirer allegation of “steering work” to IBS was accurate.

A District statement issued at the meeting called the Inquirer articles "false and misleading" and responded point by point to 12 specific excerpts from the coverage it alleged are "false."

“The District’s procurement guidelines give executive staff broad powers where procurement is concerned, especially in emergency situations,” the document reads. It also notes that “IBS is in fact on the approved city list which can be used by the District at any time.”

The Inquirer reported the District had violated state requirements by not choosing a contractor from a state-approved list. But District spokesperson Shana Kemp said after the meeting, "It’s not a requirement that we use the state list – it never was."

In public testimony, State Rep. Waters, appearing with five other members of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus, said, “We are commending her for her commitment to fairness. … Dr. Ackerman’s record of achievement is nothing short of excellent.”

He applauded the superintendent’s efforts to increase minority business participation in the face of continued under-representation among the District’s contractors. "We must tear down this culture of apartheid and economic discrimination," he said.

Other public speakers decried the tone of media coverage of Ackerman and the District as biased, spoke to the urgency of opening up economic opportunities for people of color in the District, and applauded the superintendent’s overall record.

The owner of IBS, Darryl Boozer, came in for praise from one of the speakers, the Rev. LeRoi Simmons of Central Germantown Council, who talked about Boozer’s volunteer work, including involvement at Germantown High School. "He’s dependable and a man of high moral character," Simmons said. Simmons called the contract award to IBS "a long-overdue break in the good old boy network."

Mayor Nutter issued a statement, presented to the SRC by Lori Shorr, his chief education officer, saying, "I support Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and the Philadelphia School District’s laudable efforts to increase the percentage of contracting opportunities awarded to disadvantaged businesses, including minority-owned businesses."

There were at least two dissenting voices in the public testimony – speakers who opposed the expenditure of $7.5 million on cameras used for increasing surveillance of students. Questioning the District’s spending priorities, Salim Ali of Graphic Enterprises condemned the decline of programs that teach trades and the arts in schools, asking, "Why are we turning schools into prisons."

On other matters, speakers from five different charter schools called upon the District to act immediately on their expansion applications, which were tabled in the spring, but got no public response from the SRC or District officials. And two speakers from ACTION United urged the District to provide additional supports to teachers in high-poverty schools, where they found that the percentage of teachers with three or fewer years of experience is on the rise.

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