Having carefully crafted the optics around the $572 million bond issue it’s urging voters to pass in November, Denver Public Schools features on its website a photo of two white boys and a black girl, all wearing engineer hardhats.
But the real picture of the district’s business practices looks far less inclusive.
In a school district where more than 7 out of 10 students are minorities — and a city where almost half the population is nonwhite — DPS has awarded only about 2 percent of contracts from construction bonds to qualified companies owned by ethnic minorities.
District officials long have been aware of the disparity and have vowed to make changes. But critics say those changes haven’t come, even with a recent pilot program that was supposed to boost minority businesses’ participation. The result: companies owned by white men snagged the contracts, once again.
DPS’s minority contracting practices are the subject of a discrimination lawsuit filed last week in federal court. They’re also prompting a group of Denver business owners and community leaders to oppose the upcoming bond issue, which they fear will once again shut out people of color.
“What we have here is economic discrimination against our community. It’s economic racism. And it’s intolerable,” says Robert Alvarado, a veteran of the Denver construction industry.
“It’s a serious problem for our community to see our businesses overlooked,” adds Denver community development activist Veronica Barela, “We’re against this bond issue until this situation gets turned around.”
DPS is Colorado’s largest school district. To keep up with shifts in Denver’s population, it’s building new schools – especially in the city’s sprawling north and northeast – and renovating buildings from the Cold War-era and earlier. There’s plenty of engineering, architectural and construction work to be done.
In 2012, Denver voters approved a $515 million bond – most of which went toward construction and building improvements. The district’s web site touts the effort as a glowing success. It reads, “Promises Made, Promises Kept.”
But the African American and Latino business owners who say they were shut out of contracts under the 2012 and earlier bond projects see the district’s contracting practices as a long string of broken promises. Several have joined a coalition that’s pressing DPS and other agencies to hire more companies owned and staffed by people of color. The Committee for City and Airport Fairness (CCAF) has met several times with DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg to complain about contracting disparities.
Letters and other documents show that, at least on paper, Boasberg has committed to turning things around. But, in reality, the coalition says, nothing much has changed.
Boasberg declined to comment for this story.
Minority contracting numbers haven’t yet been disclosed for the 2012 bond.
Out of $454 million in bond business from DPS’s last bond project in 2008, documents show only 2 percent of contracts went to minority- and women-owned businesses. CCAF members are furious about the numbers. But they’re not surprised.
“The district has no real plan for (minority- and women-owned businesses). All they have are platitudes,” says architect Ron Roybal. He and brother Mike Roybal, business partners, filed their federal lawsuit against the district Friday. Their lawyer: State Rep. Joe Salazar. The complaint charges that DPS discriminated against the Roybals because they’re Latino and that it retaliated against the brothers for speaking out against the district’s contracting practices. It seeks economic damages, punitive damages and attorney fees.
DPS won’t discuss Roybal Corporation vs. DPS, citing a policy of not commenting on pending litigation.
District spokeswoman Nancy Mitchell wrote in an email to The Colorado Independent Wednesday that, “We strongly dispute any contention that ethnic or racial discrimination has played any part in the awarding of 2012 bond dollars.”
“Denver Public Schools has made strong progress in increasing the diversity of our contractors and believe we are one of the few, if not the only, Colorado school districts to publicly set goals for diversity in awarding bond contracts,” she wrote. “DPS recognizes the importance of ensuring our public contracting dollars go to diverse contractors. Equity is a shared core value for our district, both inside and outside the classroom.”
Mitchell highlights the district’s effort to commission a study on how it spends bond money. That report, which analyzed contracting between 2009 and 2013, found that DPS’s “current practices contributed to the underutilization of ready, able and willing (women and minority businesses) in the construction industry operating in the Denver Metro area.”
Mitchell also points to a goals program passed in response to that study, increasing the district’s goals for minority contracting. She urges the public to review DPS’s Equitable and Inclusive Contracting Policy as proof of its commitment to inclusion. In some areas, she notes, the district’s goals are higher than the City and County of Denver’s.
But CCAF members and other watchdogs say DPS has a long history of being slippery with words and numbers.
They point to what they say is a longstanding practice by the district of factoring into its statistics contracts with businesses that don’t meet the criteria of being socially or economically disadvantaged. DPS has used two private companies – Mountain Plains Supplier Development Council and the Women’s Business Enterprise Council – to certify whether firms meet the requirements of qualifying as minority- and women-owned businesses. Those firms, they say, use less stringent requirements than those used by reviewers in the City and County of Denver and Colorado’s Department of Transportation, which take extra steps to verify ownership percentages, business financials and the net worth of owners. The result, critics say, is that DPS has awarding many contracts to large firms with some minority ownership and to smaller firms that are white-owned but, because of their small size, fall under DPS’s category of “diverse businesses.”
Being small, critics say, doesn’t make a business “diverse.”
“They’ll do everything in their power to cover their asses,” adds Barela, chairwoman of CCAF.
Denise Edwards, a member of the committee and longtime champion of minority businesses in Denver, says DPS students – especially those of color – need to see black and brown contractors working on their school buildings. “The parents of the kids they’re teaching need an opportunity to get this business. But they keep shutting our people out,” Edwards says. “This bond business, it’s not filtering into the community.”
The Roybal brothers have been complaining for years about being passed over for DPS architecture contracts. The district, in response, created a pilot project for the renovation of North Denver’s Swansea Elementary School, which has a 90 percent Latino population. DPS wanted 70 percent of the project’s architectural work performed by women- and minority-owned businesses. The Roybal Corporation was one of three finalists. So was a white-owned firm, Anderson Mason Dale, which admitted in the bidding process that it couldn’t meet those goals. “Today, I can’t say with a straight face that I am going to hit 70 percent,” one of its executives told the district, according to a transcript obtained by The Independent. “We can’t do this. We can’t meet this 70 percent. We might as well forget about it.”
School board member Rosemary Rodriguez chimed in on the bidding process at the time, saying, “I get a lot of feedback about diversity and accountability.” She warned that not hiring more minority contractors could backfire among voters of color in this year’s bond election.
The contract went to Anderson Mason Dale.
Former DPS board member Arturo Jimenez, whose prodding helped create the pilot project, sighs in frustration about the results.
“Denver Public Schools has been the worst not just in terms of awarding contracts to minorities, but also even considering them. They’ve had the worst track record of all the entities in the area,” Jimenez says. “It’s pretty obvious, after all this time, they’re more interested in public relations than meaningful change.”
Not so, DPS’s Mitchell said.
“We are committed to strengthening the quality of our contracting program and look forward to continuing to work with the community to do so.”
Denver Public Schools photo.