After two-year fight, nonprofit will again give D.C. youths job training

January 15, 2013

Training programs from Urban Alliance and others help city youths get prepared to enter the workforce. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Two years of unrest surrounding the District government’s efforts to provide job training to youths appear to finally be coming to an end.

Three groups won grants from the D.C. Workforce Investment Council this week to provide job training classes to about 100 high school juniors and seniors. In January 2011, youth training programs were thrown into turmoil after a contract award was challenged, touching off months of litigation that was only recently resolved.

The grants, worth about $1.1 million combined, are going to three groups: Sasha Bruce Youthwork, the Multicultural Career Intern Program and the Urban Alliance Foundation, which led the fight with pro bono lawyers from Reed Smith to overturn a questionable contract award.

After the original December 2010 contract award, to Urban Alliance and other groups, was challenged, the city withdrew those contracts and rebid them. This time, the winner did not include well-established outfits like Urban Alliance, Sasha Bruce or the Latin American Youth Center but did include a Maryland-based firm, Synergistic, that had a thin record of serving youths but well-established financial relationship with a related for-profit company that raised raised advocates’ hackles.

Urban Alliance’s lawyers, Larry Sher and Joelle Laszlo, led a challenge to the Synergistic contract, succeeding in getting the award tossed last February. The D.C. Contract Appeals Board found “no consistent, discernible standard or approach” in the city’s award process and found “significant gaps in the record and unexplained inconsistencies” in the records supporting the decision — the third consecutive youth job training award to be challenged.

“I am hopeful that the alarm bells set off by this string of troublesome solicitations will now translate into decisive action by the District’s procurement professionals,” a judge wrote at the time. Still, Urban Alliance had to beat back requests that the board reconsider their decision before having a chance at winning their contract back. 

“This was the most pervasively irregular procurement I’ve ever seen,” said Sher, a veteran contract appeals lawyer. “I don’t know if they tried how they could have screwed it up more.”

Sher said the same appeal might have cost a paying client as much as a half-million dollars — about the value of the underlying contract. “We did this because we really cared about Urban Aliiance and what they’re doing for the District,” he said.

Now, with the selection process in the hands of WIC rather than the procurement department, there are hopes that there will be less contention.

“They did it professionally, everything was above-board,” said Sean Segal, Urban Alliance’s chief operating officer. “The frustrating part about it is, we could have been serving these youths since January 2011, and we weren’t. But now we’re excited to move forward.”

In Urban Alliance’s program, high school juniors get intensive work-skill training, preparing them for paid internships as seniors with the group’s corporate partners.

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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Mike DeBonis · January 15, 2013