At a time when affirmative action goals are increasingly under attack, the School Reform Board has set some ambitious ones: About half the money going to contractors under its $1.4 billion capital improvement program should go to minority-owned firms and another 10 percent to women-owned firms.

Arguably, such goals look impressive compared to similar public works programs around town. For instance, the City of Chicago’s purchasing department has goals of 25 percent for minority firms and 5 percent for women-owned firms. So do the Chicago Park District and the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority. Cook County aims a bit higher: 30 percent minority and 10 percent women.

The School Board also has set goals for specific racial and ethnic groups. So far, it’s surpassing most of the targets for Hispanic- and Asian-owned firms, but it’s falling far short of the mark for black firms. (See chart.) Recently, the board devised a corrective action plan.

Signs of trouble surfaced early, when the first wave of school capital improvement projects went out for bids in early 1996. “There was not a lot of preparation, [and] there was a need to move quickly,” says Ralph Moore, a consultant hired by the board last spring to monitor minority contracting. “This is the largest construction program since the pyramids.”

Jobs came out too fast for general contractors to find qualified minority contractors, some observers say. Others say the property advisors the board hired to oversee smaller construction jobs had no structure for tapping black firms. “Obviously, Phase I [of the capital plan] has passed us by,” says Allison McGowan of Black Contractors United (BCU).

Black contractors likely suffered in part because one of their organizations, BCU, was sidetracked by the death last year of its founder and executive director, Taylor Cotton.

In contrast, Hispanic firms have had the Hispanic American Construction Industry Assn. (HACIA) working for them. A politically connected advocacy group, HACIA got a $50,000 contract from the board that put two staffers in the board’s affirmative action compliance unit.

Operation PUSH was offered a similar arrangement but preferred to work from outside the system, says Rosalinda Castillo, director of the board’s affirmative action unit. Both schools chief Paul Vallas and Phil Jackson, who heads up intergovernmental affairs for the board, have made regular appearances at PUSH forums for minority firms.

The board’s efforts to beef up compliance with its minority contracting program began about eight months into its capital improvement program, when Vallas and Jackson held face-to-face meetings with general contractors to appeal for their support. In December, the board hosted a fair for minority contractors at Kennedy King College.

This spring, school officials announced still more initiatives:

A program linking School Board deposits at Seaway Bank, a black-owned bank in Chatham, to lines of credit for minority subcontractors.

Training workshops for small contractors to learn how to subcontract with board-approved general contractors.

All general contractors will be required to submit the names of minority and women subcontractors in their bids, or else the company will not be considered for the project.

Though some black contractors are frustrated with some of the shortfalls in the board’s minority contracting program, they stop short of criticizing the program. Instead, they applaud the board for setting and trying to meet affirmative action goals in the first place.

“Chicago Public Schools does have the best program for minority contractors,” says Paul King, chairman of UBM Inc., a black-owned general contracting firm, which is on the board’s approved contractors list. “It really helps black subcontractors.”

However, in May, King sent a letter to Diane Minor, the board’s procurement director, complaining that five recent contracts that went to white general contractors were too big for many black firms, which tend to be smaller, to submit competitive bids.

“What looked like an opportunity for minority firms to develop is now becoming another windfall for the same big companies,” King wrote.

Instead of setting up David-and-Goliath battles among contractors, King suggests that the School Board select a few projects for minority-owned general contractors to compete over. A similar program is in place at City Hall.

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