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DOE contracting practices on the City Council hot seat right now

Last week, the City Council’s education committee examined next year’s Department of Education budget, and next week it is scheduled to look into the explosive issue of charter school expansion. For today, however, the committee is turning its attention to the technical but no less important issue of how the DOE enters into business contracts.

The DOE hires external vendors to perform a variety of services, from managing admissions processes to constructing data systems. Some of the department’s contracts, such as one with the consulting firm Alvarez & Marsal to redo the system’s bus lines two years ago, have been criticized for being expensive and being entered into without a competitive bidding process. In January 2008, the state comptroller, Thomas DiNapoli, announced he would open an audit of the department’s no-bid contracts, which at that point totaled more than $300 million. The results of that audit have not been released.

Tired of waiting for DiNapoli, a handful of enterprising Columbia University journalism students launched, a Web site that they’re calling “an experiment in open-source investigative journalism” to get more details about the DOE’s contracting practices. So far they’ve posted a list of no-bid contracts the DOE has entered into, which they obtained by filing a Freedom of Information Law request. They’re also updating their blog as they learn more: The most recent post is about how two offices that technically are supposed to monitor DOE spending, the Public Advocate’s Office and the Comptroller’s Office, gave the students two different lists of no-bid DOE contracts. My guess is that NYCPublicEyes, like GothamSchools, will be reporting about today’s hearing.

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