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DOE contract investigation renews attention on PEP's role

Reports that a Department of Education technology contractor improperly stole millions of dollars from the city are returning attention to the way the school system reviews contracts.

Building more oversight over contracts was one of the goals of the reauthorized mayoral control law passed by state lawmakers in 2009. The law handed review power of contracts to the Panel for Educational Policy, the citywide school board controlled by the mayor. But since 2009, several panel members have complained that they lack the information necessary to review contracts before approving them, making their oversight authority meaningless.

In the case of the contract with Future Technology Associates, the firm accused of fraud yesterday by the city schools investigator, panel members had less than a day to review detailed information about the contract before voting on it in September 2009, according to email messages obtained by GothamSchools. Officials shared the information in response to a request by the Manhattan representative on the panel, Patrick Sullivan.

The contract came up for a renewal vote at the first meeting of the PEP after the mayoral control reauthorization. In an email to Sullivan the day of the meeting, department General Counsel Michael Best cited reauthorization as motivating school officials to prepare more thorough background materials.

Sullivan, an opponent of the Bloomberg administration’s education policies, responded that those materials — which included a draft agreement between the city and Future Technology Associates — were not sufficient. He said that a day to review them was not enough time.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Education did not respond to a request for comment today. School officials have previously said that it would be impossible to provide detailed information to panel members because in most cases the contracts are still under negotiation when they come up for PEP approval.

In his 2009 email, Best said that his “understanding” was that the city’s practice was in line with those of boards of educations around New York, which he said do not review draft contracts before approving them. He said the more powerful Board of Education that existed before Mayor Bloomberg won control of the schools in 2002 operated the same way.

A spokeswoman for the New York State School Boards Association, Barbara Bradley, disputed that characterization, saying that New York school boards have access to full contracts before they approve of them. “They do their homework, they don’t rubber-stamp the contracts,” Bradley said. “If they want to go through it line-by-line, they could. But they’re also relying on the superintendent at the board meeting to lead them through this kind of thing, or their school attorney.”

In an interview today, Sullivan called on the chairman of the PEP, Tino Hernandez, who is a mayoral appointee, to step down. “Someone needs to take accountability for the failure of the PEP here,” Sullivan said. “The PEP didn’t carry out its oversight role as mandated in the state education law, so I think we need to have a chairman who is willing to make that happen.”

Hernandez, the former chair of the City Housing Authority who was appointed to the PEP in 2004, did not respond to emails from GothamSchools today.

Gbubemi Okotieuro, the PEP’s Brooklyn representative, seconded Sullivan’s request for more information about contracts. He suggested that the Department of Education share the information it has on each contract one to two months before it comes up for a vote. “Don’t just give me two weeks notice. Give me good information well before a major contract is about to come up,” he said.

The 2009 reauthorization also handed more oversight power of contracts to the city comptroller, who reviews contracts after they are approved by the PEP. In July 2010 the DOE proposed that the PEP vote to give blanket approval of all contracts, but it withdrew this proposal after John Liu, the comptroller, spoke out against it and brought it to the attention of state legislators.

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