Firm sues school district

Arlene C. Ackerman, the former school superintendent, has denied ordering a surveillance-camera contract to be awarded to a minority-owned firm in 2010.
Arlene C. Ackerman, the former school superintendent, has denied ordering a surveillance-camera contract to be awarded to a minority-owned firm in 2010. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)

Alleging racial bias, the white-owned company seeks damages for a lost security-camera project. Ackerman is also named.

Posted: May 28, 2012

A suburban firm that lost a $7.5 million surveillance-camera project after former Philadelphia School Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman intervened on behalf of a minority-owned firm has filed a federal civil rights suit against her and the district.

Security & Data Technologies Inc. of Newtown, Bucks County, said it was not chosen for the project in fall 2010 solely because of race. The company's owner, Jerome Paley, is white.

The suit said Ackerman later told several managers she was sick of the school district giving work to white contractors who "do not look like [her] and Lee [Nunery]," her deputy at the time. Ackerman and Nunery are African American.

The filing in U.S. District Court is the fourth brought against the district in the aftermath of Ackerman's decision to award an emergency, no-bid contract to IBS Communications Inc. to install surveillance cameras in 19 city schools the state had deemed dangerous. Describing the camera installation as an "emergency" allowed the district to bypass normal bidding requirements.

The other cases were brought by current or former district employees who allege they lost their jobs or were demoted or defamed as a result of Ackerman's handling of the camera controversy.

The new lawsuit also alleges that Nunery, who became acting superintendent after Ackerman's departure last summer, threatened the Newtown firm by saying it would never receive another district contract if it protested the camera decision. Nunery is now a special adviser to the School Reform Commission.

The Bucks firm seeks compensatory damages for "all lost revenue, past and future, which it has suffered and will continue to suffer as a result of defendants' improper and discriminatory treatment."

District spokesman Fernando Gallard said Saturday he could not comment on ongoing litigation.

Ackerman, now an educational consultant in Albuquerque, N.M., did not respond to an e-mail request for comment. She has repeatedly denied ordering the award to IBS, but she acknowledged producing its business card and telling aides to find IBS work on an earlier surveillance-camera contract at South Philadelphia High School in December 2009.

IBS was subsequently paid $12,890 to produce schematic drawings - 12 times the amount the company that had installed the cameras said it would charge.

Officials from Security & Data Technologies could not be reached Saturday.

The Inquirer reported on Nov. 28, 2010, that district officials contacted Security & Data Technologies in September 2010, when Ackerman said she wanted to install the cameras at all 19 schools on an emergency basis within 30 to 60 days.

The company had handled similar work and other large projects for the district, including at district headquarters at 440 N. Broad St., the suit said.

And it was on a state list of vendors approved for emergency work because its prices had previously been determined through competitive bids.

"This decision was based entirely on legitimate business consideration, including [Security & Data Technology's] qualifications, experience, and demonstrated performance. It had nothing to do with race," the suit said of the earlier work.

The Newtown company immediately began working with the district, including touring the schools and working up floor plans.

District officials who examined its proposal concluded the project could be completed on time. They also noted that it included a provision that the company would subcontract 33 percent of the project to minority-owned firms and 34 percent to female-owned firms. Those rates exceeded the district's minority-participation goals for such a contract.

The officials sent the materials to Ackerman and Nunery.

According to the suit, Ackerman rejected the proposal to award the contract to the Newtown company during a meeting Sept. 23, 2010, because it was a "majority" corporation. She directed staff to give the camera project to IBS, even though the company had never completed a large district project and was not an approved emergency vendor, the suit said.

Ackerman resigned as superintendent in August after accepting a buyout of more than $900,000.


Contact Martha Woodall

at 215-854-2789 or martha.woodall@phillynews.com.

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