News Column

Miami-Dade School Board to Consider Policy on Minority Contracts

Oct. 9, 2012

Laura Isensee

Hispanic woman in hard hat

Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho will bring to the School Board on Wednesday a plan to overhaul how the district does business with small firms and those owned by minorities and women. The plan aims to give those companies a more equitable shot at district business as voters are being asked to approve $1.2 billion in bonds to fund renovations of aging schools and technology upgrades across the county.

The question of who would get that work if the bond passes is a sore spot for some local businesses, especially in Miami's urban core.

"There is serious room for improvement," said Bill Diggs, president and chief executive of the Miami-Dade Chamber of Commerce. He called the proposal is a "healthy concept," but he would like to see aggressive policy for not only construction contracts, but for goods and professional services.

"If you say a rising tide is going to lift all boats, we want to make sure we have a boat," Diggs said. "We want to put a program together that makes sense."

Last year, black business leaders said a disproportionately low number of school district contracts had been awarded to minority-owned companies over the last 20 years. Since 1987, they said, $675 million out of a total of $15 billion -- or about 4.5 percent -- spent on construction and procurement had gone to black-owned firms. Fifteen percent went to Hispanic-owned companies, and 3 percent to women-owned businesses, they said.

A recent analysis by the school district looked at 16 capital projects since 2008. That indicated women- and black-owned subcontractors received $72.2 million out of $226.7 million, or about 32 percent.

Carvalho's proposed rules, if approved by the School Board, would establish a small/micro enterprise program and revise procedures for certifying minority- and women-owned companies.

"I promised you months ago that we were going to take a no-holds-barred approach toward ensuring that the policies we have in place are fully reformed before the first penny is potentially spent under this bond," Carvalho told School Board members last week. "I believe we have a chance to fix this once and for all."

The district's office of economic opportunity would administer the program and report directly, with quarterly updates, to the superintendent. Among its jobs, the office would monitor and certify participating businesses.

The proposal creates sheltered markets and tiers for micro and small companies to compete. The tiers would be set by gross revenues, varying by industry. It would tighten the requirements for companies to be certified as a minority- or women-owned business, like making the owner demonstrate actual control of the company.

It's not clear how much business the district currently does with such companies. John Schuster, spokesman for the district, said that some work with minority and women businesses may not get counted because the firm may not be registered, or if an administrator uses a credit card, the work may not be recorded as such.

The district last studied any disparity in 1990.

In September, the board gave the OK for an expedited study. Generally, an in-depth disparity study is needed to enact practices geared toward race or gender.

At a forum last month at New Birth Baptist Church near Opa-locka, Carvalho recognized "there is an economic injustice in our community and in the school system."

"When the African-American community, in terms of business opportunity, does less than 2 percent of total business, that is unjust," he said at the forum.

Chris Norwood, a consultant who does work with the district and serves as vice chairman of the minority and women business enterprise advisory group, said the problems date back years, but progress has been made recently.

Last year, the board started a policy for local vendor preference, which allows local companies a second shot at a contract if their bid comes in within a few points of the top bidder's price or overall package.

Another recent change: requiring principals, who buy the most of the district's goods and services, to get quotes from minority- and women-owned companies.

"This is documented progress the School Board has done on its own," Norwood said.

Source: (c)2012 The Miami Herald Distributed by MCT Information Services

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