Philadelphia school board approval of contracts worth $183 million prompts transparency debate

Mayor Kenney’s three new board nominees, from left, Lisa Salley, Reginald Streeter, and Cecelia Thompson
Philadelphia school board members Lisa Salley (left) and Cecelia Thompson (right) raised concerns about the process behind one of the communications contracts that the board recently awarded. Board President Reginald Streater (center) said the board followed the district’s procurement process. (School District of Philadelphia)

Long after people had left the school district auditorium, Philadelphia’s school board voted Thursday night to approve roughly $183 million for vendor contracts, including $336,000 for a consulting group to improve the board’s communication with the public.

Those contracts covered school building repairs, IT and technology equipment, office supplies, preschool programs, and water and sewer systems.

For years, outspoken members of the public and some education advocates have demanded more transparency from the board when it comes to their appointments and deliberations. Now, with multiple schools closing due to damaged asbestos, and gun violence claiming the lives of 23 students and wounding another 84, the board’s public approach to these and other crucial issues could help determine whether Philadelphia’s next mayor reappoints some, all, or none of the board’s current members.

Not long after he took over the district last year, Superintendent Tony Watlington drew public ire when the board (at his request) hired a consulting firm for $450,000 to help with his transition and guide the creation of a long-term strategic plan for Philadelphia schools.

While the 54-item consent agenda ultimately passed with little debate, board members Lisa Salley and Cecelia Thompson raised concerns about the process behind the $336,000 communications contract with Public Consulting Group in particular. 

Thompson said she “wasn’t even aware” that the board was going through a selection process for communications vendors. 

“We dont keep minutes, there’s no written documentation on what occurs … there’s no accountability,” Thompson said. “That should be a public conversation, not this secret stuff.”

Salley noted that the district has often been accused of “lack of transparency.”

“Strategic communication in general is very poor for the board and the district as a whole,” Salley said. 

Public Consulting Group did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Board Vice President Mallory Fix-Lopez said the contracts went through the usual request for proposal process. Several people from the board and district reviewed multiple vendor contracts, and ultimately decided to move forward with the ones that appeared on the consent agenda.

“The process is not over, we are in this final step of work, collectively making a decision,” Fix-Lopez said before the vote. “That is what happens when we vote for an action item.” 

Funding for the contracts approved Thursday night came from a variety of sources including operating and capital funding from last year and next year’s budget as well as federal and state grants.

Board President Reginald Streater said the board followed the district’s procurement process “to the tee.”

Board member Leticia Egea-Hinton defended the Public Consulting Group contract and said the board needs urgent “help” connecting to the school community. “I don’t think we can wait much longer,” she said.

But those comments came too late to mollify Lisa Haver, founder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools and a frequent critic of the board’s transparency efforts. Speaking at Thursday’s board meeting during the public comment period, she blasted the communications spending, which included $881,500 for “customer service” with a group called K12 Insight, as well as the $336,000 contract. 

She questioned why the district was spending such money “to assist professionals and board members to do what they were hired or appointed” to do.

The full list of contracts can be found on the board’s website. Among the approved items on the consent agenda were:

  • $8 million for technology equipment through the state’s COSTARS cooperative purchasing program.
  • $11 million for replacing roofs at several schools
  • $32 million for “office supplies.”
  • $3.5 million to amend a contract with The Home Depot for “cleaning and custodial supplies.”
  • $9.3 million in contracts with the city water department and Vicinity Energy for water services and steam heat.
  • $79 million in federal and state grants for prekindergarten programs at community-based partner sites.
  • $6 million for boiler repairs.
  • $12 million to extend contracts with vendors doing HVAC repairs.

Carly Sitrin is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Philadelphia. Contact Carly at csitrin@chalkbeat.org.

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