In the last year, the School Reform Board moved closer to its goals for cutting minority-owned firms and women-owned firms a substantial slice of the work generated by its $1.4 billion capital improvement plan.

At last count, the board had spent 37.3 percent of its capital improvement money with minority-owned firms and 9.8 percent with women-owned firms. That’s an improvement of 3 percentage points with minority firms from a year ago; women slipped by 0.6 percent.

The board’s affirmative action program still lags on some of its stated goals—especially on a push to give black-owned firms 32 percent of general contracting work—but the numbers are creeping up. Groups representing black contractors note that the program still has room for improvement, but even critics give the board’s staff top marks for effort so far. The board’s affirmative action targets are higher than those of other local governments, and a higher percentage of the board’s construction-related spending goes to minority-owned and woman-owned firms

The biggest compliment to the board’s efforts may be a back-handed one. The school district may soon get some unwelcome attention from the Builders Association of Greater Chicago (BAGC), a group which represents some of the largest contractors in the Chicago area. The BAGC is currently suing the city and county, trying to force those two local governments to drop their affirmative action goals. The board may need to prepare to defend its own practices against a similar BAGC lawsuit, acknowledges Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas.

According to Vallas, the Builders Association recently offered to drop its suit against the city on the condition that the School Board and City Hall set uniform targets. In that case, “We’d have to [lower] ours,” notes Vallas, since the board sets affirmative action targets that are, in some cases, twice as high as the city’s. “My response to that is—absolutely not.” (The Builders Association and other parties to the suit neither confirm nor deny Vallas’s account.)

“We don’t even consider this affirmative action,” Vallas says. “We consider this economic development. If they [BAGC] want an agreement with the county and the city, that’s fine. But we’re different from the county and different from the city. We are a 90 percent minority school system, and we have an obligation to people in our community: to help them participate in the financial opportunities our programs can afford.”

Leaders of groups that represent minority and women contractors—called “assist agencies”—credit Vallas and his staff for backing up those words with actions. “The higher-ups are accessible with a phone call,” says Ernest Brown, president of Black Contractors United. “They normally get back to you within a half-hour or an hour.”

The assist agencies credit the board for setting high goals and for putting an experienced, dedicated staff to work to achieve them. The board “hired some of the best people in the city to staff their affirmative action program,” says Consuela Pope, director of the Cosmopolitan Chamber of Commerce. “That makes a difference.”

The board’s program is “outstanding head and shoulders above any such program in the area,” says Miguel Descoto, director of the Hispanic American Contracting Industry Association (HACIA).

“They’ve gone the extra mile to provide programs that assist the small contractor,” notes Lori Healey, director of the Federation of Women Contractors.

The board has created several programs and routines to fulfill its goals, including the following:

Consultant Ralph G. Moore works with a few dozen small companies, acting as a management consultant, leading informational seminars and helping them form relationships with banks and general contractors.

The Cosmopolitan Chamber has a contract to match 18 small firms with larger firms which become “mentors” to the smaller companies.

Staff from the affirmative action department work closely with the assist agencies. They meet every month with the agencies to troubleshoot, and send out all bid documents to their offices. This summer, board staff plan to post the bid documents on the Internet, so that agencies can get even quicker, easier access to them.

The board now provides insurance, which is often harder to get and more expensive for smaller, less established firms. This year, the board started buying insurance in bulk to cover all its contractors, so that small firms get the same rates as larger ones.

Vallas and top aides lend their personal support, addressing contractors at meetings and seminars, and working directly with assist agencies.

“We’re relatively pleased with our work so far, but we’re not done.” says Rosalinda Castillo, director of the board’s affirmative action program. “We still have a long way to go.”

She predicts that getting to the board’s goals will take years, largely because the capital improvement plan got a very quick start, before there was time to put effective affirmative action programs in place. By the time Castillo and her staff got their initiatives together, hundreds of millions of dollars had already been spent. “The percentages move slow, because we’re dealing with a big bottom line,” she says.

Brown, the president of Black Contractors United, acknowledges that one reason black-owned firms haven’t gotten a bigger share of the work is that his own organization has suffered from a lack of staff leadership since the death of its founder and director, Taylor Cotton, two years ago. When Brown spoke to Catalyst in mid-May, he said the group was about to “hire someone to work with [the board] and help us get our [act] together.”

The other major organization representing black contractors, the African American Contractors Association, has no full-time staff, and its leadership has gotten bogged down in conflict with Vallas. (See story.) Omar Shareef, the group’s president, thinks the board does not do enough to reach out to black firms and accuses Vallas of doling out work to political favorites. However, Shareef says he respects the staff who run the affirmative action program and thinks their programs are based on sound ideas.

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