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Some second thoughts on the Ackerman contracting controversy

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

When I read the front page article in The Inquirer in late November charging Arlene Ackerman with questionable and possibly illegal behavior in relation to the awarding of contracts for installing cameras at city high schools, I wanted to jump up from my morning coffee and high-five my wife. As may be clear by my posts on this website, I’m not a big fan of the superintendent, so public exposure of her apparent missteps was like an early Christmas present.

The Inquirer story described how Ackerman engineered the last-minute award of a small contract at South Philadelphia High School to a minority firm, IBS, multiplying the cost of the job by twelve. Then IBS, again reportedly at Ackerman’s insistence, was awarded a $7 million contract for installing cameras at high schools on an emergency basis without competitive bidding after work on the job had already begun. The article also pointed out that IBS is not on the state-approved list of minority contractors – although the company is on the city list.

The story detailed traits many of us have come to expect from Ackerman and her administration: autocratic concentration of power, playing fast and loose with established procedures, preoccupation with public relations and damage control, obfuscation and evasion when challenged.

However, the Inquirer coverage left out something too – the School District’s dismal record of inclusion of minority contractors in work awarded over the years and the efforts of the last two administrations to reverse this practice.

When Ackerman responded to the Inquirer story by arguing that she was simply acting to “level the playing field” and get more work for minority contractors, my initial reaction was that she was cynically using affirmative action issue to deflect attention from her mistakes. But now I’m having some second thoughts.

In a school district in which the majority of students are African American, the bulk of the contracts go to majority-owned firms and have for a long time. As a recent post in the Notebook reported, minority and woman-owned businesses (M/WBE) had a share of the pie of only 2 percent as recently as 2003. Under an anti-discrimination policy adopted that year, their share has recently grown to as high as 27 percent. However, fewer than half of those contracting dollars go to African American businesses, and large chunks of District business are not counted in the set-aside percentages.

The outpouring of support for Ackerman from a broad array of forces in the African American community, testifying to her support for increasing the share of work for minority contractors, suggests that, putting aside her methods, the superintendent might be trying to do something right.

Testimony at the SRC and stories in the Philadelphia Tribune indicate that many African American contractors and their supporters see a pattern of discrimination coming from “the third floor,” the location of the professional District staff who deal with contracting out. These critics charge there is a “good old boy” network of majority (White) contractors and District staff that excludes minorities.

In this narrative, Ackerman emerges as the champion of the excluded and her critics are instruments of the racial status quo. The evidence for this view, at least in what I’ve read, is less than conclusive, but it does raise some serious questions.

Even if true, these charges of discrimination do not exonerate Ackerman’s handling of the IBS contracts, let alone the subsequent witchhunt for whistle blowers, but they do put them in a different perspective. The last thing this School District needs as it faces the budget hackers in Harrisburg is a battle that further polarizes Whites and Blacks. An investigation that focuses on only one side of this controversy risks doing just that.

Significantly, Rep. McGeehan and Rep. Pileggi, the most vocal critics of Ackerman on this issue, are both White, representing largely White districts, and neither has expressed support for the goal of increasing the amount of work minority contractors receive from the District. In their hands, the investigation could easily result in an outcome against affirmative action in contracting.

At the same time, it should be noted that African American elected officials who have rallied in support of Ackerman have generally failed to recognize the seriousness of her mistakes. Ackerman’s behavior has opened the door for further attacks on the School District in Harrisburg.

Ackerman’s behavior here does need to be investigated … but so too do the allegations of persistent discrimination against minority contractors.

We need more transparency and accountability in the way contracts are awarded. We also need more equity.

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