By Brian C. Johnson, MBA, President/CEO of Minority Builders Coalition, Inc.
For years, the leaders at Broward County Public Schools have received complaints from numerous local businesses about the hard times they have had in trying to do business with Broward County Public Schools. African American entrepreneurs have complained of being locked out. Hispanic entrepreneurs have complained of being left out.
Even white women entrepreneurs complained of being singled out. Collectively referred to as “minorities”, although together these are the greatest majority of Broward County citizens, all of these groups of business people have been very vocal about their bad experiences in trying to do business with BCPS, one of Broward County’s largest segments of the local economy with a more than two billion dollars annual budget. Despite the constant complaints, it appeared that it was business as usual where millions of dollars of business opportunities each year seemed to be reserved for a select few who happened to be a part of the “good ole boys network”.
Not long after he was hired to lead BCPS, Superintendent Robert Runcie took note of these complaints and promised to address them. Last year, Superintendent Runcie urged the School Board to fund a disparity study to review the school system’s history of contracting with the hopes of identifying if there were in fact any discriminatory practices keeping minorities away from fair access to opportunities. After a yearlong review of spending data from 2008-2013, the final results of the disparity study were revealed to the School Board of Broward County in a workshop on last Oct. 27, 2015. Turns out that the concerns regarding preferential contracting were real.
We now know that there was in fact unfair and unequal practices that systematically directed more than 72 percent of its construction business to WHITE MALES ONLY, while leaving everyone else to fight over the remaining less than 28 percent. We now know that while just about everyone but white males were discriminated against, that African American construction firms experienced the most disparity. In fact, we now know that a school system where more than 38 percent of the students it serves are African American, that this same system only did 1.2 percent of its business with the businesses owned by the parents, neighbors and friends of the majority of their student populations.
In denying minority businesses a chance to contract with SBBC, as one of the largest segments of our local economy, the BCPS have been denying minority companies a chance to generate the revenues needed to hire the people that can earn the household income in order to secure the critical resources that support the basic living and learning needs of the mostly minority children in our classrooms.
And I want to stress this point for those who might be tempted to excuse the disparity as being a result of minority firms being less qualified; the report documents that not only was there many barriers stopping minority firms from getting in the game, even when we make the team, the rules of the game changed. For example, in a case where a minority firm actually won a contract, dollar values were changed from $250,000 to $25,000 without justification or recourse. In another example, a minority firm that was the lowest bidder in five out of six categories painfully watched as he got the least amount of work and the one white male firm that was low in only one of six categories got most of the work. There were pages of such testimonies documented in the study and many of those firms attended the workshop to give firsthand accounts of their experiences to the School Board.
Although the study doesn’t say it directly, it is clear that there is sufficient data and anecdotal evidence to conclude that SBBC was an active and passive participant in discrimination against minority firms in its procurement practices. As a result, African American businesses lost approximately $11 million in contracting opportunities during the six-year study period. And that was during a time when the system was doing minimum maintenance and renovation projects. Nevertheless, that is an enormous loss of jobs, household income and community benefit to a segment of our county that needs these resources the most. Considering that voters just authorized a Broward schools bond that would fund $800 million worth of projects over the next five to seven years, the potential loss of opportunities to our communities can be astronomical if the system is not fixed immediately.
We are calling on the School Board of Broward County to adopt the disparity study, with necessary amendments and refinements, so that measures to ensure ample minority contracting can be implemented immediately. We are calling on the School Board of Broward County to adopt policies and procedures to implement recommendations in the study AND the additional Minority Builders Coalition recommendations that expand the benefits to minority owned businesses, especially in the area of construction. Furthermore, we are calling on the School Board of Broward County to increase the amount of race-gender conscious strategies to address disparities reflected in the report.
The initial response by the BCPS leadership has been promising. Superintendent Runcie and his leadership staff have been reaching out to community organizations and minority business advocacy groups to get our input on changes that can be made now. Dr. Osgood, the only African American school board member, has been a very vocal supporter of minority participation and now the disparity study supports her calls for the system to do right by its minority businesses. In fact, all of the sitting school board members have all pledged their commitment to do everything legally allowable to ensure all businesses have a chance to prosper from doing business with BCPS. Yet, we must demand more!
We shall continue to fight until we see a full eradication of the practices that contributed to the lopsided wins of one group to the detriment of all others. And we shall continue to fight until the proof of a changed system is seen in the bank accounts of qualified and ready minority businesses who seek to do business with BCPS. In the words of Civil Rights Heroine Fannie Lou Hamer: ‘I’m Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired’!
Institutionalized economic racism in Broward County must come to an end, and the BCPS is a great place to start.