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School board members squabble over minority inclusion

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True or false: City schools do enough to provide job opportunities to minority-owned businesses.

Actually, that's a trick question. After months of debate by Pittsburgh Public Schools board members, the answer depends on whom you ask.

During a Sept. 26 board meeting, Mark Brentley pled with his fellow board members to adopt recommendations from a 2005 University of Pittsburgh study, which found numerous problems with the way the district bids out work.

"It's been a very bloody battle over this issue," Brentley said. "Some of these recommendations are long overdue. I'm waving my white flag."

His flag of truce attracted little interest. The board voted not to accept the recommendations made in Dr. Ralph Bangs and Dr. Audrey Murrell's report, "Increasing Prime Contract Opportunities For MBEs With Pittsburgh Public Schools." Though it was first presented to Superintendent Mark Roosevelt in late 2005, and though Bangs himself presented its findings to the school board this June, a five-member majority opposed Brentley's effort. Brentley was the only member to vote in favor of the recommendations; Patrick Dowd, Thomas Sumpter and Randall Taylor abstained.

The study sought to explain why MBEs -- "minority business enterprises" -- were given just 3.2 percent of Pittsburgh Public Schools' total prime contracts of $10,000 or more, between January and September 2005.

Researchers conducted face-to-face interviews with 20 black-owned firms. The consensus among those interviewed, the report says, is that the district's bidding practices "often prevent qualified and interested African-American firms from obtaining information on prime contract opportunities."

The law requires that most contracting opportunities be publicly advertised. But nearly half of Bangs' interviews said they had "difficulty getting information on opportunities," 44 percent said it was "too expensive to prepare bids" and 31 percent "perceive the process to be unfair." It found that information about the bids -- such as the goods and services being sought -- are often not included in newspaper ads or on the district's Web site. And minority contractors complained that their efforts to get that information were often fruitless, resulting in little more than unreturned phone messages.

The report also says that "special treatment" is given to "large, majority-owned firms."

As an example, the report cites the district's use of "change orders," which alter the amount and scope of a contract after a winning bidder has been selected. According to the study, change orders added 12 percent to the cost of construction contracts let out by the school district -- three to four times the national average.

"The large volume of change orders enables majority business owners to bid unusually low to win contracts," the study says, "because they know the [district] will substantially increase their contract later." For example, one change order noted by the study increased a contract from $10,333 to $233,755.

"The statistics are startling," says Tim Stevens, of the Black Political Empowerment Project. "The board and the district can't allow this to continue."

Since 27 percent of Pittsburgh's population and about half of the district's student population are African American, Stevens says the percentage of MBE contracts should reflect those numbers.

"To have only 3.2 percent of contracts is beyond unacceptable," he says.

The report makes several suggestions, including urging the district to better publicize all contracts up for bids. It also suggests tightening up "change orders," and breaking up large-volume jobs into smaller contracts. That would allow smaller MBEs to compete with larger white-owned firms.

"The process just needs to be fair," says Lucille Prater-Holliday, of the Black Women's Empowerment Institute. "[The report] is just asking people to do the right thing and be inclusive of everyone."

That sounds simple, and Taylor says, "I'm sure if we have further discussion, we could get this passed."

But it hasn't happened yet.

Bangs, who has compiled dozens of reports on racial inequality over his 20 years as a research associate at the University Center for Social and Urban Research, presented his study to board members on June 6. But his findings were attacked, and four board members -- Theresa Colaizzi, Jean Fink, Floyd McCrea and Daniel Romaniello, Sr. -- later sent a letter denouncing his study.

The June 21 letter accuses the report of including "misinformation and unfounded statements and accusations." It questions the method by which Bangs selected interview subjects, and faults his study for relying so heavily on their subjective impressions of the district's fairness.

"This is a feeling and not based on any facts," the letter says of interviewees' perception that the bidding is unfair. "The District cannot be responsible for someone's feelings."

At the June 6 meeting, Bangs himself defended his selection of interview subjects. Many of them, he said, were provided by Paula Castleberry, the district's women/minority-owned business coordinator. Others were of MBE vendors maintained by Allegheny County. "[T]hey are strong firms," Bangs said. "They have shown some interest in local government contracts, and in many cases, specific interest in Pittsburgh Public Schools."

In any case, more than "feelings" are at stake, as a separate exchange of letters makes clear. On June 19 -- just days before the board denounced Bangs' study -- Vic Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, sent Roosevelt a communique of his own. The letter asks that renovations for the Miller African Centered Academy be re-bid, because of the "discriminatory impact" of practices that "fail to comply with industry standards."

While the work was advertised in the New Pittsburgh Courier, the letter argues, "[I]t mentions only that contracting opportunities would be available. There are no details. Miller Academy is not mentioned. The ad does not contain any information about the project itself, bid plans and specifications ... or bid due date."

Walczak writes that it is "very troubling that [the district] has continued with discriminatory bidding practices a year after they were brought to Superintendent Roosevelt's attention." What's more, the letter concludes, "it is ironic that the project involves the Miller African Centered Academy."

Roosevelt did not return calls for comment by press time.

In a June 20 response, district solicitor Ira Weiss responded, "I would have welcomed the opportunity of discussing this in greater detail before the ACLU took this step." But the district subsequently agreed to re-bid the project.

Meanwhile, Bangs stands by his study. "The report is completely accurate," he says. "It provides definitive evidence that minority firms are being excluded from contracts with Pittsburgh Public Schools."

Bangs also says that the district has started making some changes he recommended, including providing more detailed advertisements about upcoming bids. As for the report's other recommendations, Colaizzi says some of them cannot be done legally. Weiss, for example, says the school code bars breaking up large contracts into small ones.

Brentley disagrees, saying that other city school districts have sliced up contracts with much success. But to hear Colaizzi tell it, such changes remain a long way off.

"He can do whatever he wants with his report," she says. "As far as I'm concerned, he can throw it in the fireplace."

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