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TPS, NOHCC celebrate minority construction inclusion

By Kevin Milliken for La Prensa

The Northwest Ohio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (NOHCC) and Toledo Public Schools (TPS) held a celebration event in the lobby of Woodward High School on Wednesday, June 12, 2013 to mark what they called “historic” minority participation in construction and renovation projects at district schools.

Jim Gant, TPS business manager, stated “Segment 6,” the final renovation and school demolition phase, saw 24 percent minority inclusion. However, prior phases saw figures only reach seven to eight percent.

The TPS Building for Success program was heavily criticized for years for failing to meet its stated goals to include minority subcontractors in school construction projects. The $650 million program combined funds from a levy approved by Toledo taxpayers, as well as funding from the Ohio School Facilities Commission. It was the largest building program in TPS history and one of the largest in Northwest Ohio to date.

However, state law prohibits mandating such participation by minority-owned firms in construction contracts. Public agencies can only “encourage” minority inclusion in such large projects through goal-setting, oversight, and compliance measuring.

Several minority leaders roundly criticized the process, accusing the TPS board of education of paying “lip service” to a minority inclusion goal to get the African-American and Latino communities to support a construction levy several years ago. Current school board members met such criticism with a renewed commitment to minority inclusion and actively worked to change the process by which it was measured.

“For many years in our Latino community, we felt as if we weren’t being asked to be engaged, as if we weren’t being included in the process,” said Robert Torres, NOHCC executive director. “Through the years, that has changed. There have been times when we’ve had to call that action. Some of the members of the Hispanic Affairs Commission can attest to those days.”

“We really tried as a district to make sure we had inclusionary numbers from a minority perspective as we went along,” said Gant. “I think that we did the best that we could at the time.”

The TPS board of education also hired Dan Briones of HVAC company Air Force One and Eric Johnson of Ivy Development as community outreach “consultants.” The two men held public meetings and invited minority subcontractors to information and networking sessions with major construction firms bidding on renovation and building contracts. Briones and Johnson stated they reached out to approximately 110 Northwest Ohio firms.

“I think one of the things the district learned from the start to the time Mr. Briones and Mr. Johnson got involved is that there are ways to do it in order to have more inclusion,” said Gant. “Understanding the community and what they can provide and some of the things we can do as a district-- how we submit, how we communicate. I think we got better as we went along.”

“It was actually one of the first times we actually had some bite to the bark,” recalled Briones. “One of the schools did not have the proper minority inclusion. We looked at it and the reasons for the folks not having it were kind of bogus. TPS came back and supported us and took it out to rebid to get the minority inclusion. That’s the kind of commitment we got. I was proud to be part of that process.”

Johnson explained that one of the keys to success was changing the “front-end documents” required in the bidding process to reflect the seriousness of minority inclusion. Bidders now had to identify what subcontractors they would use.

“We wanted to know when the bids were submitted: who were you partnered up with,” he said. “We had some flak and some comeback, that ‘we can’t do that.’ We told them we wouldn’t accept their bid because you just have to do the extra due diligence to get your partners included. It worked very well, evidenced by the numbers—a 300 percent increase.”

Johnson stated the consultants convinced TPS to use its website to disseminate documents and bid information fairly to everyone electronically. He also explained they “brought other community resources and support services to the table.”

“If individuals needed bonds, we brought bonding agents. If individuals needed lines of credit, we brought bankers to the table,” he said. “So all that could get done right then so we could take away any excuse as to access to resources. It was a wonderful opportunity for us to get involved and I think we made a significant impact.”

Johnson stated that once those relationships were developed on TPS projects, those collaborations between construction firms and minority-owned subcontractors have continued on public and private-sector projects. However, the trust had to be developed and the opportunity for the minority-owned businesses to show what they could do.

“That networking was a nice byproduct of that process,” said Briones, explaining that Adelante received a new roof on time and under budget because of a contractor the agency had not known about prior to the TPS inclusion effort ramped up.   

“We’re now proud to say that the heads of many Latino businesses actually built Toledo Public Schools,” said Torres. “But it’s also about where do we go from this point forward. The Northwest Ohio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce stands as a partner with Toledo Public Schools. We’ve met with the business manager and superintendent and there are some exciting opportunities that are here before us. With the right leadership and the right participation and the right energy, there is no opportunity beyond the capability of our Latino businesses.”

A similar process is now built into the TPS contracting system for not only construction projects, but purchasing contracts for goods and services. The school district is in the midst of three such “design-build” contracts:

·    A $2.6 million addition at Whittier Elementary School;

·    A $1.8 million addition at Arlington Elementary School; and

·    A $750,000 reconstruction of the science labs at Waite High School.

“It’s my job to ensure we continue that process,” emphasized Gant.

Jeff Schaller, VP of pre-construction operations for Rudolph-Libbe, explained that his company now encourages minority subcontractors to go through his firm’s pre-qualification process. The design and construction company is the project manager for the Whittier expansion.

“We don’t want a subcontractor to get in over their heads,” he said. “There are larger projects that are a lot more extensive, but we can involve them in smaller projects to get them started.”

Gary Johnson, owner of Latino subcontractor and supplier American Flooring, explained he was able to develop such a relationship during the TPS Building for Success program and was “fortunate enough” to receive a contract for the Leverette Elementary School project.

“At that time, that was the largest contract we had ever gotten for our company,” he said. “That kind of put us on the map so we were very appreciative. My biggest fear was I had never had a contract for $100,000 before—so I was very, very careful in making sure the quality of the work we did was going to stand up. I wanted it for my résumé. We were successful. When the punch list came out, we had the lowest number of items we had to go back and redo.”

Johnson explained many larger construction firms now have a “small projects division,” where minority subcontractors can prove themselves with $30,000 to $50,000 contracts that are part of an overall project with a price tag of under $1 million. He was able to grow his business through larger and larger contracts over time.

“You can build that relationship that way,” he said. “I started that way with Rudolph-Libbe and there were a lot of contracts I couldn’t qualify for when I first started with them. It went from those smaller contracts to where I’m now able to do a million dollars’ worth of work with them. It continues by building those relationships and putting a quality product out there and making sure you give the kind of customer service that you would want.”

Johnson stated that as long as TPS and other major public agencies are serious about minority inclusion, construction firms will continue to seek out Latino subcontractors as project partners. He stated there’s plenty of work to be had if a minority-owned firm “is creative.” One example he gave is for a subcontractor to do landscaping work if they’re not “signatory with the union.”

“They’re looking for quality contractors and there are a lot of quality Latino contractors that can do that work. They’re looking for you and they want you to step up to the plate,” he said. “We don’t have enough Latino contractors that are out pursuing that kind of work. But they want us. If you’re a contractor or selling goods and services, TPS still wants to hear from you. Don’t get discouraged just because someone else tells you that they can’t get a job with a company. You can if you try.”

NOHCC pledged to continue to link Latino contractors and companies with larger construction and design firms to help them grow their businesses. Membership information can be found at www.nohcc.com.   

Copyright © 1989 to 2013 by [LaPrensa Publications Inc.]. All rights reserved.
Revised: 06/25/13 19:38:57 -0700.




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