on the horizon

Pressure is mounting on DOE to follow city contracts rules

City Council Member Melinda Katz introduced a resolution asking the state to change the law so that the Department of Education is required to follow city contracting rules.
City Council Member Melinda Katz introduced a resolution asking the state to change the law so that the Department of Education is required to follow city contracting rules. (Via ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/azipaybarah/2414997941/##Azi's Flickr##)

Comptroller Bill Thompson attracted lots of press Wednesday by accusing the Department of Education of “runaway spending” on contracts. But another, less sexy development could have a much greater impact.

That’s the fact that momentum is growing to force the department to follow the same contracting rules as other city agencies, in the form of endorsements from a list of advocates, including one office that rarely butts into policy debates, and a new City Council resolution calling on a change in the state law that allows the DOE to duck the usual regulations.

Agencies from the NYPD to the parks department cannot hand taxpayer dollars over to an outside contractor without first following the rules of a citywide office called the Procurement Policy Board. The DOE is the only city agency that does not have to follow the board’s rules, which do everything from forcing public hearings on contracts above a certain price to imposing strict guidelines on what contracts have to be bid competitively.

The DOE’s exception was born well before the 2002 mayoral control law gave the mayor authority over the schools, but it has gotten more attention under the new structure, which makes school contracts harder to track. While the old Board of Education reviewed all contracts above a certain size before they were signed and held public hearings where citizens could respond to the contracts, the Department of Education has presented only a small number of contracts before the new version of the board, the Panel for Educational Policy.

The result is that hundreds of contracts have been offered without competitive bidding — and without a public hearing to discuss what the contracts include.

A group of Columbia Journalism students has reported that the DOE also makes it difficult to find contracts once they’ve been signed. The department does not maintain reading rooms for the public to review contract documents, against the requirements of the Freedom of Information Law, and many contracts simply aren’t available for review, they reported. Asked about the concerns at a City Council hearing Wednesday, school officials said they would look into them.

A Public Airing

The lack of PEP hearings is despite language in the state law that gives the panel the power to “approve contracts that would significantly impact the provision of educational services or programming within the district.” (Read a PDF of the law here.)

Patrick Sullivan, a PEP representative from Manhattan who is a critic of the Bloomberg administration, told me that he has seen only labor contracts come before the PEP, never a goods-and-services contract. Sullivan said that he recently asked the department to submit a new $79 million contract with a firm called MAXIMUS to manage special education data for a PEP vote.

The department’s general counsel, Michael Best, denied Sullivan’s request in an e-mail message that I obtained, though he did offer to share some information about the contract — after the meeting had happened. Best wrote:

If you really want to see the contract, we do not have an electronic version to send around, but if you were willing to come down to tweed we can arrange to let you take a look at it.

Sullivan, who was appointed by the Manhattan borough president, Scott Stringer, said he was not satisfied. “If the PEP had to vote on the contracts, then there would be some accountability there. Then we would be holding Klein accountable for the spending,” he said. “Because they refuse to allow any of those, and they just spend whatever they want and whenever they want, they’re refusing to comply with the accountability requirements of the law.”

A spokeswoman for the department, Ann Forte, said of the contract, “We do not believe Panel approval was required.”

City Council members would urge state lawmakers to make that change under a resolution introduced this week by Council member (and comptroller candidate) Melinda Katz. “It is amazing to me that there would be allowed any exception to what any city agency must do,” Katz said at a hearing Wednesday, announcing the resolution.

School officials yesterday declined to follow an invitation from Katz to self-impose the restrictions other agencies follow. They said the department’s exception is important because it allows the system’s 1,400-odd schools to buy things like copy machines and textbooks on their own, without having to navigate a maze of regulations. “They need the flexibility, within accountability guidelines, to actually make the purchases necessary for their students,” the department’s chief operating officer, Photo Anagnostopoulos, said.

Best, the department’s general counsel, said other mayoral agencies must get every contract they write reviewed by a chief contracting officer. That would be very difficult in a system of 1,500 schools, he said.

Katz and other advocates said Wednesday that the exception means the department’s contracts fly under the radar of proper oversight.

George Sweeting, the deputy director of the city’s Independent Budget Office, added his endorsement to the resolution, in a move he said was unusual for the IBO, which usually stays out of policy debates.

“The PPB rules are intended to improve transparency, avoid excessive costs, and reduce the potential for favoritism that can result in the absence of competitive bidding,” Sweeting said in prepared testimony. “It is difficult to understand how those rules are considered useful when other city agencies procure goods and services, but unnecessary or too cumbersome for the DOE.”

The Speed Imperative

City Council members also pointed to the department’s $16 million contract with Alvarez & Marsal, the consulting firm that re-arranged the school system’s bureaucracy. The contract attracted attention because it was awarded without any bidding and because it led to the 2007 scandal where a midyear rerouting of school bus lines left many children stranded in the cold. The department has said the bus routing was a mistake but defends the rest of Alvarez & Marsal’s work, which it says saved the city $170 million.

David Ross, the department’s head of contracting, told City Council members Wednesday that Schools Chancellor Joel Klein awarded Alvarez & Marsal the contract without any competitive bidding because he felt a time crunch. “The chancellor had an interest in completely making extensive changes to the school system and operations,” Ross said. “It was felt that it was just not practical or possible to do an RFP or competitive process and make the reforms and changes that were needed in the schools.”

He said that Alvarez & Marsal “had the advantage” because they had already begun working with the school system under a contract with the Fund for Public Schools, which used private philanthropic donations to start off work with the firm. “They were already there. They had done a lot of the work,” Ross said. “So the inertia behind them was already very significant.”

School officials repeatedly called the Alvarez & Marsal contract unique. In an interview yesterday, Ross told me that the department handed out $28 million in no-bid contracts in 2008, a number he said is low compared to years past. In testimony to the City Council, Anagnostopoulos said the so-called “exceptions” contracts were all less than $5 million in value, and 85 percent of them were with community-based organizations that run pre-kindergarten classes.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”