The Philadelphia Inquirer is nothing but a bunch of racist bastards trying to tear down the black leaders of this city. In so many words, that was the allegation made by a parade of speakers this week who lined up four deep at a school board meeting to defend Superintendent Arlene Ackerman.
There was huffing and puffing and fulminating and even a message from Mayor Nutter in defense of the superintendent and her granting of a $7.5 million no-bid "emergency" contract to install surveillance cameras in 19 city schools listed as dangerous by the state Department of Education.
The Inquirer first published a story on Nov. 28, raising questions about the contract awarded to IBS Communications, a
Why skirt the usual procedures?
Because it was an "emergency" - as in a public relation's emergency. The state was about to release a list of persistently dangerous schools in the city. Ackerman & Co. didn't want to look like they hadn't acted on curbing school violence. They decided at a meeting in September to install the cameras pronto.
A firm that had been doing some of the work was jettisoned and IBS brought in. How did school officials know of IBS? Because Ackerman had intervened to give them a piece of an earlier job at South Philly High. And how did she know about them? She happened to have the IBS business card in her purse.
As the Inquirer reported, the district's definition of what constitutes an emergency differs from state guidelines, which allow school officials to bypass bid requirements if the situation involves a "serious hazard such as fire, floor, or unexpected structural or mechanical failure." No mention there of "or release of a state report that could embarrass the district."
In addition, state guidelines state that firms approved for emergency no-bid work should be under an existing contract to do such work (IBS was not) or on a list of state-approved contractors to install and service safety equipment (IBS was not.).
When Bill Marimow and Martha Woodall first released the story, school officials denied Akcerman had anything to do with the granting of the contract. They retreated from that denial after subsequent stories showed that she did have a role
More recently, Ackerman has stepped forward and acknowledged she knew who IBS was, had inserted them into the job at South Philly High, and defended the granting of the $7.5 million no-bid emergency contract by saying, in effect: Tough noogies if you don't like it. I am trying to promote the hiring of minority contractors within the district and this is the way it is going to be. "Change is hard," she said.
Indeed, it is.
With her statement, Ackerman sought to redirect the conversation from these questions: "Was there political favoritism involved here?" and "Why didn't the district follow the procedures and guidelines in place" and "Was this a legit 'emergency'?" to this question: "What have you got against giving business to black contractors?"
In other words, she played the race card.
Hence, the rally on Wednesday. Hence, the heated rhetoric of the speakers. Hence, the condemnation of the Inquirer for even daring to question the purity of the superintendent's motives.
It's just another example of The Man trying to keep us down.
Of course, this is ludicrous. And it is illustrative of the difficulty black leaders have today in adjusting to the new realities of the urban power structure.
There is an antique feel to using the language of the 60's and 70's in a city with a 30-year history of having black mayors, black school superintendents, black presidents of school boards; black district attorneys, black police commissioners, black City Council members, black state legislators -- not to mention a vigorous city-run minority business development program.
It's hard for The Man to keep you down when you are The Man.
Better to look at this not as a racial issue, but a patronage dispute. The district gives out hundreds of millions in contracts each year. There is a segment of the business community that wants its share. There's nothing wrong with wanting it, as long as you play by the rules in getting it.
The Inquirer is raising questions about whether the district played by the rules in this case They are serious, substantive questions -- even if they did come from the demon, white media.
As to the superintendent, I have faith that she will deal with this controversy with the same adroitness and aplomb she has handled such challenges in the past. (Ackerman's track record is that when things get bad, she gets worse.)
So get ready to duck.