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District sheds new light on contracting

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

Responding to years of criticism about obscure, unfair, and inefficient contracting practices, the District has this year for the first time released extensive details of its more than $300 million in annual expenditures going to outside providers of goods and services.

In a presentation at Wednesday’s School Reform Commission meeting, Chief Financial Officer Michael Masch provided analysis of two documents with 117 pages of detail on contracts that are now on the District website. They list every District contract in the first 10 months of the 2010-11 fiscal year from both operating and grant funds.

The reports on contracting dollars were first released to the mayor last spring as part of the District’s educational accountability agreement with the city and state.

Masch repeatedly emphasized that "the overwhelming majority of these dollars are spent for students and schools." For example, in the District’s operating budget, more than a third of the $186 million in contracting dollars spent in the first 10 months of last school year paid for bus service. In the District’s grant budget, heavily funded by federal dollars, about half of the contracted services are for early childhood programs and special education, Masch said.

Masch also said that an analysis by his office showed 66 percent of total dollars spent on contracting went to projects that were competitively bid. However, Commissioner Joseph Dworetzky commented that he is frequently asked to vote on resolutions for contracts that were either not competitively bid or where the bidding process appeared inadequate.

In an exchange on that subject, Masch and Dworetzky agreed that the norm should be to conduct a competitive process. Dworetzky said that in the future he would like to see it spelled out in SRC resolutions "if it wasn’t competitively bid, what was the rationale for that."

The SRC’s discussion surfaced a few other areas of concern. Wendell Pritchett, the newest commissioner, said he’d "like to see more progress" on District efforts to "build into contract procurement from the outset the measures we’re going to use for performance.” And Masch offered that the District is lacking a searchable database for managing all of its contracts; portions of the work on summarizing all the District’s contracts had to be done manually.

Masch promised twice-annual reports on District spending on contracts, with the next one slated for February or March.

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