Tech contract approved after city acknowledges need for more transparency

A controversial contract was approved in a 10-1 vote by the city’s Panel for Educational Policy late Wednesday, after a burst of concern over its size and connection to a past scandal prompted city officials to say they will be more transparent in the future.

The Department of Education contract in question is for upgrading Internet access in schools and worth up to $637 million. It was won by a technology firm implicated in a kickback scheme four years ago — something panel members, who are charged with approving such contracts, said was not shared with them until early this week.

In response to concerns raised by elected officials and advocates, the city said the contract had been fully vetted and released more details about the bidding process. But officials acknowledged again Wednesday that they could have done more to inform panel members and the public.

“We need to do better at getting notice out to everyone in advance of these hearings, but this is a contract that needs to happen,” said David Ross, who oversees contract procurement for the department.

Ross was referring to a deadline to qualify for the federal E-Rate program, which could reimburse the city for part of the contract. If the contract isn’t in place by the third week in March, the city could lose $25 million, he said.

The city’s new contract with the principals union was also formally approved at the panel meeting, as was a new rule allowing cell phones and laptops in school. The current ban on phones lifts on March 2, when schools are expected to have developed their own plans for students’ use of technology.