Philadelphia School District Urges Employees to Keep Mum

Philadelphia School District Urges Employees to Keep Mum

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 A memo sent to school district employees this week reminding them that they could be fired, suspended or face other disciplinary action for discussing district business without authorization has again thrown Superintendent Arlene Ackerman into the spotlight.

“It was just a reminder about our code of ethics policy here,” said district spokeswoman Shana Kemp. “It was just a memo from our legal department which was an [industry] standard.”

The memo was sent to all district staff on Tuesday from School Reform Commission counsel Michael A. Davis. In it, district staffers were told that they were responsible under district policy for “maintaining confidentiality, conducting yourself in a manner that engenders respect and justifies trust in your integrity, competency, and devotion to the mission of the School District.”

Kemp said the memo and others like it were sent out periodically to remind district employees about district policy.

However, its release, and leak to reporters, came at a time when the district faces a state audit and is also undergoing an internal investigation, being conducted by Michael Schwartz, a lawyer from Pepper Hamilton L.L.P., under the supervision of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman.

Both were prompted by recent revelations surrounding the awarding of a $7.5 million no-bid contract to a minority-owned firm in September.

Ackerman has acknowledged that she interfered in the awarding of the contract to install security cameras and related equipment at 19 district schools, which went to a Germantown company called IBS Communications. The choice ruffled feathers because officials at another company, Security & Data Technology of Newtown Township, had reportedly already begun work, led to believe they had the contract by someone inside the administration, without the required SRC approval.

“I later learned that staff members had asked them to do the work, which is totally inappropriate,” said Ackerman in an interview on Dec. 2. “We’re trying to find out who had them do what.”

Six district employees were suspended with pay as Ackerman struggled to find the source of the information, which was originally leaked to The Philadelphia Inquirer. Employees placed on leave were: Robert Westall, deputy chief information officer, Melanie Harris, head of the technology department, John L. Byars, senior vice president of procurement services, Francis Dougherty, an aide to Deputy Superintendent Leroy D. Nunery II, Patrick Henwood, senior vice president for capital programs and Augustine Pescatore, a commander in the Office of School Climate and Safety.

Ackerman told the Tribune in several interviews in December that she intended to find the source of the leak and plug it.

“Once we find out we will take appropriate action,” she said, adding that during the time she served as superintendent in San Francisco she brought in the FBI to investigate her own staff.

In a district as large as Philadelphia’s leaks are almost impossible to stop, said a public relations veteran who asked not to be named.

“The district has always been known as a communications sieve,” said the source. “When you have a meeting in the district the information is going to the press before the meeting is over. That is an environment that existed before Ackerman. It’s always been an issue at the district.”

Whether the Ackerman could stop district employees from talking to the media would depend on the circumstances, said Mary Catherine Roper, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

Employees at public entities like the school district are given wide latitude to speak about district business.

Federal whistleblower laws do not apply to discussions with the media, she said. Constitutionally protected free speech might apply in some situations but only if the information leaked concerned something in the public interest and even then a judge would decide on a case-by-case basis.

“It is always a very complicated analysis about the value to the public, of the kind of information being made versus the power of the government to operate a workplace without chaos,” Roper said. “It’s very much a case-by-case basis. It would depend on the role of the employee as well as the kind of information being released.”

Already Ackerman’s ongoing battles in and with the press have drawn the attention of officials in Harrisburg.

State Rep. Michael P. McGeehan said this week that he was working to add the media to the state’s whistleblower law to “help facilitate the media’s ability to obtain information on wasteful government spending.”

McGeehan has been a sharp critic of Ackerman.

The state Department of Education started its investigation of the district after McGeehan sent a letter requesting a probe.

The people to whom Ackerman is accountable, the mayor, the SRC and ultimately governor have not shown an inclination to second-guess her.

Mayor Michael Nutter declined to comment on the memo sent out this week. He has been a steadfast Ackerman supporter throughout her stormy tenure.

SRC chairman Robert L. Archie could be reached for comment Friday. He too has publicly stood behind the superintendent.