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Shelby County Schools board will examine its contracting with woman- and minority-owned businesses

Board member Chris Caldwell has led the charge to sue the state for not fully funding the BEP formula.
Board member Chris Caldwell has led the charge to sue the state for not fully funding the BEP formula.

Shelby County’s school board has created a subcommittee to investigate how many of the district’s contracts are with minority- and woman-owned businesses.

The district currently does not have a way to ascertain which contracts are with minority- and woman-owned businesses, according to spokesman Christian Ross.

The issue of whether government contracts are going to such businesses has been raised in other local government agencies in recent months. The Commercial Appeal reported in May that the Shelby County Commission, like the school district, has not taken stock of how many contracts go to black-, Hispanic-, -and woman-owned businesses in years—and when it did, the portion was very small, despite the fact that Shelby County is majority African-American. The Shelby County Commission is now considering a study into disparities in how contracts are awarded.

At Tuesday’s board work session, board member Shante Avant gave an update on a new board subcommittee’s work on the issue. “There’s been a lot of public domain conversation about making sure we have minority and local businesses receiving contracts with large entities such as our district, the city, and the county,” she said. “We’re happy to move forward and set goals to promote minority- and woman-owned businesses.” She said the work was in the early stages.

Earlier in the meeting, discussions about which architects would be used for new district building projects and which nursing service the district would contract with both touched on the question of whether businesses were owned by local minorities and women.

In the case of the nursing contract, one of the vendors qualified as being minority- or woman-owned while the other two did not.

In the case of the architects, board member Teresa Jones said that district officials had realized that the list of contractors who work with Shelby County Schools has not been updated for several years. She encouraged the district to create an updated list, and when a district official said the list would be updated after several projects were completed, she asked for a sense of urgency.

Superintendent Hopson said that the district would create a new list “ASAP.”

The issue also surfaced at a meeting of the school district’s facilities committee earlier this month. When board members were presented with a list of appraisers who evaluate the district’s property, they noticed that none were minority-owned.

Board member David Reaves said some practical barriers might stand in the way for contractors. He cited a friend whose company did roofing, but was not certified to use the specific materials the district requires contractors to use.

Jones asked the district to look into its contracting process. And facilities committee chair Billy Orgel suggested that the district determine the number of contracts from minority-owned businesses. “We have to have the numbers to have a good discussion.”

Bernal Smith, the publisher of the Tri-State Defender, agreed. “I’m of the school of thought that you can’t fix what you don’t measure,” he said.

“It’s a myth that the businesses aren’t out there,” he said. Smith and several other local business owners are hoping to push city and county leaders to consider their contracting procedures.

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