The Prince George's County Board of Education unanimously adopted a measure last night aimed at ensuring that minority and local businesses are awarded more of the school system's $40 million annual procurement budget, despite warnings that the program could cost over $100,000 a year.
The board, after several hours of debate, adopted a watered-down version of the initial proposal, agreeing to set a goal that 10 percent of expenditures for all goods and services would go to minority-owned businesses. Members Thomas Hendershot, Barbara Martin and Sarah Johnson originally proposed a goal of 30 percent.
The policy awards "bonus points" to minority businesses bidding on school contracts and also gives preference to county-based firms.
"I view this as a major step," said Ralph Clark, a black businessman and chairman of the county Minority Procurement Advisory Committee. Clark was one of eight speakers to urge the board to approve the measure.
"There's no reason why this school board would not look at a set-aside program and pass it overwhelmingly," said state Sen. Decatur Trotter (D-Prince George's).
Dennis Brownlee, representing the county Minority Business Office, dismissed warnings by school officials that the program would be too expensive. He said a similar program implemented by the county government has cost $6,000 for $50 million in contracts.
Superintendent John A. Murphy had previously expressed concern that the 30 percent goal would cost up to $349,000, which would diminish funds available for the instructional program. But board members agreed to lower the goal to 10 percent in an effort to lower the cost, with the provision that the goal could later be raised to 30 percent.
"I think it's time, I think it's right, I think the cost can be absorbed," said Hendershot. "You can never spend too much to do that which is right."
The school system has been governed by a state policy mandating that 20 percent of school construction funds be awarded to minority businesses. But that requirement affects less than 1 percent of total expenditures by the system, according to sponsors of the new policy.
Similar programs are in effect for several county agencies, including the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission and the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.
Minority businesses are defined as those at least 51 percent owned or operated by one or more minorities, which, as defined, includes females.
Associate Superintendent Patricia Palmer estimated that the new program would require hiring two new staff members at a cost of $60,000 plus a potential cost of about $117,000 to award the bonus points.
"We're facing a shortfall now," said board member Doris Eugene before the goal was lowered to 10 percent. "Any cost at this point I have very serious concerns about."
In adoptng the measure, the board instructed Murphy to devise a specific policy and bring it back for review within 60 days.