Contract emergency

October 03, 2006

Baltimore school officials insist that their extensive use of emergency contracts, without competitive bidding, is justified and has largely been in response to legitimate requirements. But for a system that recently eliminated a huge deficit and is seeking to regain trust and confidence, the practice is troubling.

An examination by The Sun's Sara Neufeld found that during the last six months, the city school system has not used competitive bidding in approving 21 contracts worth more than $19 million. Anne Arundel County, the next-highest nearby jurisdiction, has used only four such contracts in the past year. And some of Baltimore's contracts would not appear to be needed for the urgent protection of students' health and safety for which emergency contracts are generally warranted.

But city school officials insist that they had to move quickly to renovate and upgrade buildings - for $6.6 million of the contract costs - in time for the start of the new school year in August, when 4,300 students were reassigned to different schools because of state pressure to reduce facilities in light of a shrinking student population. Another $8 million had to be spent at the last minute for cafeteria food and paper supplies, they say, after a disgruntled bidder stalled the process until about a month before schools were set to open.

School officials have moved to make more contracts subject to automatic and not random internal audits. And interim schools CEO Charlene Cooper Boston has wisely ordered workshops on procurement and contracting procedures for senior and new managers to be held this month. For a school system that's still recovering from a $58 million deficit, in part because of lax oversight on expenses, there can't be too much emphasis on keeping spending under control.

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