County funding local colleges, ISDs to conduct disparity studies
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Economic equity has been the charge and battle cry of this most recent iteration of the Harris County Commissioners Court, thanks to the leadership of Commissioner Rodney Ellis, along with Commissioner Adrian Garcia and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo.

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This group’s latest move to get more procurement dollars going to minority- and women-owned Business businesses is to designation a $200,000 Disparity Study Fund to help such entities implement a Minority- and Women-Owned Business Enterprise (MWBE) program. 

To that end, officials with Lone Star College System and Alief school district said recently they support using that fund to conduct their own disparity studies.

“We have asked and have found that no Houston area Community College or Independent School district has ever conducted a disparity study to evaluate whether their procurement and contracting activities are open and fair to all firms,” said Ellis. “The federal courts require these studies to adopt M/WBE type programs. 

“Our research reveals that agencies with strong M/WBE programs ensure equal economic opportunities to compete and fair access to contracts for everyone in their communities.  Community colleges and independent school districts are working with businesses to provide construction and professional services and it would be a game-changer to find out how much of that business is going to minority- and woman-owned businesses.”

Ellis led the effort to get Harris County, METRO and the Port of Houston to conduct disparity studies to compile the evidence and data to show what many assumed: the lion’s share of contracts are going to white- and male-owned businesses, with MWBEs falling woefully behind. Still, just how far Black-, POC- and Women-owned businesses were being left in the dust, was shocking.

Still, some question why such studies are even needed. But Ellis is crystal-clear why the data must be gathered.

“While national and regional trends point to there being disparities when it comes to accessing economic opportunities for MWBEs in public procurement, the federal courts require a disparity study for a specific agency to be conducted and for the study to show a disparity in order for that agency to implement a narrowly tailored race- and gender-based MWBE program. These programs will allow Community Colleges and Independent School Districts to legally set MWBE participation goals on their contracts,” said Ellis. 

Carlecia Wright, Chief Diversity Officer for Lone Star College System, which 60% of its students are minorities, said disparity studies are required to legally implement a MWBE program.

“That is why Lone Star is committed to doing a disparity study and making sure we implement a program that is race and gender conscious so that we can create opportunities not just for our community,” she said, “but for our future community and for students who inspire to be entrepreneurs.”

Commissioners Ellis and Garcia are speaking to school district and community college boards in Harris County to convince trustees to take advantage of the fund, which Commissioners Court approved in November.

“We are going to go to every school district and community college in our region and say, ‘you ought to do more than just march in a (Martin Luther King Jr.) parade and read the I Have a Dream speech. You ought to give every student at your community college and your public schools the opportunity to build the schools that they attend,’” Ellis said, referring to minority and female students who could become contractors.

“There’s a lot of strong talk when it comes to celebrating our diversity, but all too often, entities don’t put their money where their mouth is,” said Garcia. “So, I challenge every educational institutional in our region to recognize that when you do disparity studies, you are bringing others to the table.”

As part of the program, the Office of County Administration will work with the County Attorney’s Office, the Purchasing Department, and the Department of Economic Equity and Opportunity to create a fund for community colleges and school districts in Harris County to conduct disparity studies to determine if MWBE’s are being utilized.

Participating institutions will be required to create and adopt MWBE programs using national best practices to remedy any race and gender disparities identified. Although Harris County is providing seed money, the participating entities will be responsible for most of the costs.

Public entities cannot create race-conscious MWBE program without first performing a disparity study. Commissioner Ellis initiated Harris County’s disparity study and asked the Port of Houston and the Metropolitan Transit Authority to conduct similar studies. Each disparity study indicated that MWBE’s were not well represented in the procurement process.

Harris County’s study, for example, showed only 9.1% of the contract dollars go to MWBEs, even though there are many more MWBEs in the region who could meet the County’s procurement needs. Black-owned businesses hold .5% of the contracts offered; Hispanics hold 4.6%; Asians hold .6%; Native Americans hold 0.1%; and White women hold 3.2%.

Ann Williams, Alief ISD Board President who said she was representing herself at the Wednesday news conference, said school district across Texas approved almost $5 billion in bonds in November. Now, school board members are faced with trying to develop equity policies.

“We are putting them in place because we want to make sure that our students have access to equitable education,” Williams said. “But what good is it to educate our students and give them access when those who want to work as entrepreneurs or want to become developers … have no opportunity when they graduate.”

The national experience is that without programs, minority and woman firms do not receive their fair share of contracts.  Harris County’s recent study revealed very large disparities between the utilization of M/WBE and their availability to perform on County projects. 

According to the County Commissioner Precinct 1 office, the County’s new M/WBE program, spearheaded by Ellis, has already created more opportunities. Over time, this means more wealth to minority communities. The more successful MWBEs we have in the Houston area, the more our businesses and families will proposer.