Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Education Panel Delays Vote to Weaken Its Own Authority by Sharon Otterman - City Room Blog - NYTimes.com

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The Panel for Educational Policy, the successor to the old Board of Education, is controlled by appointees of the mayor, so it summarily approves just about everything that comes before it. But has the city quietly been trying to make a near-toothless panel even less relevant?

That is the accusation of John C. Liu, the city comptroller, and Patrick Sullivan, a panel member not appointed by the mayor, in reaction to a resolution that had been on the agenda for the panel’s July meeting on Monday night, but was removed on Sunday amid their questions.

The resolution, called “Blanket Approval of Purchases Through Contracts of the City of New York and Its Agencies,” asked the panel to weaken one aspect of a power it was granted last year under the mayoral control law, its ability to approve or veto all contracts that are not competitively bid.

Right now, state law gives the city’s Department of Education blanket authority to approve purchases of items made under existing state and federal contracts, provided the price of those items is “below the prevailing market rate.” In other words, if a state agency has already worked out a good bulk price on computers, the city Department of Education can buy computers under that contract without the panel’s approval.

But that authority does not extend to contracts made by other city agencies, and the panel must vote on purchases made under those contracts. The resolution would change that.

In a statement, Mr. Liu said the resolution would amount to “an end-run around the stronger D.O.E. accountability required by school governance reform passed less than a year ago,” which he said would “circumvent state law.”

Neither he nor Mr. Sullivan had received a copy of the resolution by Sunday, though Mr. Sullivan was supposed to vote on it the next day, and it did not appear on the Department of Education’s Web site.

“I asked specifically about whether this was in compliance with the law,” Mr. Sullivan said, “and I expressed concern that the D.O.E. was asking the panel to expand its authority in contravention of the law. And they didn’t respond.”

The city said Monday that the authority the panel was seeking had already been approved by the panel in principle, in a few lines tucked into a 103-page procurement document passed at the panel’s January meeting. That was also the night that thousands of people attended to protest school closings and there was little public debate on procurement rules.

“I think we missed it,” Mr. Sullivan said. “I think the panel made a mistake.”

The city said it expected the issue to return to the agenda in August, after the panel’s questions about the resolution were answered. Update: A Department of Education spokesman, Jack Zarin-Rosenfeld, said later Monday afternoon that the fate of the resolution was unclear and that it would be worked out with the panel members.

The resolution would affect only purchases by schools or the central office with an annual value of less than $25,000. A central contract office would still manage the process.

“This proposal would let D.O.E. and schools take advantage of city contracts that have already been properly negotiated and are below market price, saving both time and money,” said Mr. Zarin-Rosenfeld.