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At the SRC: Business as usual

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

Despite promises for greater transparency, this month’s School Reform Commission meeting continues a troubling trend in “contract ratification,” the approval of contracts after the work is underway or, in some cases, already completed.

Fourteen of the 43 contract-related resolutions – one-third – on today’s SRC docket are ratifications (this number does not count resolutions that accept grants or approve policies).

Last month, in response to questions about its practices, the SRC issued a statement explaining that contract ratifications are “rare exceptions” that result from an “immediate need to move forward with services and resources for schools.”

Yet as I noted in my most recent blog post, I found more than two dozen instances of contract ratification in the past year. One of the most eye-opening examples was the SRC’s approval of $1 million to install turnstiles and miscellaneous security equipment at District headquarters – months after the installation had occurred. One can hardly imagine million dollar turnstiles qualifying as an “immediate need.”

In the upcoming October issue of the Notebook, City Controller Alan Butkovitz raises concerns that the District does not require competitive bidding on its professional services contracts, which totaled $242 million last year.

Not surprisingly, many of this month’s contract ratifications are for just these professional services, ranging from Achieve 3000’s $1.6 million contract for Empowerment High School materials and professional development to $360,000 to SchoolWorks for audits in the charter renewal and Renaissance School selection process.

Today, the SRC is also scheduled to approve an unspecified amount of money for Blank Rome LLP, a high-powered law firm, for all legal fees to cover last year’s union negotiations (July 1, 2009-June 30, 2010). Alarmingly, while Resolution A-19 doesn’t specify an amount for Blank Rome, it does state there shall be "no maximum amount of fees and costs for this matter" other than what was generally outlined in June 2009 (which was $500,000).

In light of the scandals around the Delaware River Port Authority and the Philadelphia Housing Authority – both of which started after inquiry around expenditures – it would seem to behoove the SRC to simply make clear to the public what the costs are for its legal work and to detail its expenditures. A blanket statement like "no maximum amount" might otherwise raise questions about oversight.

I’m encouraged by the fact that at last week’s SRC meeting, Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky requested that any contract ratification come with a staff explanation for why they were submitted after the fact. Chief Financial Officer Michael Masch also explained to the Notebook in the October issue that Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has given District staff a “hard time” about contract ratifications and would “prefer zero ratifications.”

So far, however, such ratifications appear to be business as usual.

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