New York: LANGUAGE COMPANIES SHUT BY NEW DEPT. OF ED POLICY
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Tue Nov 11 13:58:31 UTC 2008
City Limits WEEKLY
Week of: November 10, 2008
LANGUAGE COMPANIES SHUT BY NEW DEPT. OF ED POLICY
Small businesses in the boroughs won't survive under new textbook
purchasing rules. > By Helen Zelon
Connie Attanasio of Middle Village, Queens, has a master's degree in
education and has been in business for 25 years providing books for
students learning English and the teachers who guide them. Harlem-born
Jesse Harris has been distributing language books and materials on
African-American themes to city schools from his Bronx business since
1971. Genaro Bastos, an adjunct professor of sociolinguistics and
language acquisition at Queens College and New Jersey City University,
is a book provider, too, delivering works from his business in
Woodside, Queens, to the city's schools since 1980. These small
business owners – and dozens of others like them – have built
relationships over decades with teachers, principals and other
educational leaders. As minority entrepreneurs, they typify the kind
of success that Mayor Bloomberg celebrates as the lifeblood of the
city. Yet they say their businesses soon will be forced to close due
to new procurement regulations enacted by the Department of Education
in order to save money. Like all city agencies, DOE is under the gun
to cut spending in the wake of the state budget crisis.
"Once this is implemented, I'll be out of business," said Bastos. "All
my efforts have been spent serving school districts in New York City.
Now, schools are no longer my customer; the customer is New York City.
They change the rules, and now, you can no longer play the game.
There's no way I can survive."
Polyglot and penny-pinching
Two in five New York City public school students speak a language
other than English with their families. One in nine are formally
classified as English language learners (ELLs); at least as many have
attained basic proficiency but still require academic support. Dr.
Pedro Ruiz, coordinator of the New York State Department of
Education's Office of Bilingual Education and Foreign Language
Studies, sums up the size of the challenge by simply calling New York
"a bilingual state." The city's limited-English proficient (LEP)
students, who according to Ruiz speak over 170 different languages,
account for three-quarters of that population statewide; in other
words, this particular textbook market is centered in NYC far more
than in Rochester or Troy.
Until now, schools have relied on local vendors – practically all of
whom happen to be minorities – for guidance in finding the best books
for students learning English. The vendors in turn researched,
developed and honed lists of books from publishers worldwide, bringing
titles to the New York market that overseas publishers lack the
resources to promote.
Under new Department of Education bidding guidelines, most of these
established vendors are no longer eligible to compete for DOE
contracts, because they don't meet new minimum thresholds of $5
million per year in sales. The new rules also require deep purchasing
discounts and sophisticated technological capacities – impossible
targets for people like her, says Attanasio, who heads an Ad Hoc
Committee of Minority Business Owners formed in response to the new
"We don't operate for the benefit of our suppliers. We operate for the
benefit of the public schools," said David Ross, the DOE's Chief of
Procurements. Ross says the first part of the department's new
contract, which was awarded in October, already has reduced the DOE's
$57 million total annual book tab by $6.8 million. (The balance of the
contract will be awarded later this month.) "Big and middle-size
players were able to compete; the smallest players weren't able to
compete for the award."
"We made an award to two vendors, as a competitive bid within the
parameters of municipal law – although we're not required to do that,"
A different set of rules
Ross' assertion that DOE procurement is not bound by municipal law is
correct. The inclusion requirements for city government support of
minority and women-owned businesses do not apply to the Department of
Education, because the DOE is not actually a city agency. It is,
according to the corporation counsel, a separate entity – a kind of
orphan corporation that floats in its own legal universe, insulated
from city, state and federal oversight regarding purchasing, reporting
directly to Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein.
"For procurement purposes, DOE is not a mayoral agency," says
Bloomberg spokesman Jason Post. "The enabling legislation of mayoral
control specifically exempted procurement, so DOE follows state
rules." Still, the ousting of minority and women vendors runs counter
to provisions of city, state and federal law, including Local Law 129,
which Mayor Bloomberg signed in 2005 requiring city agencies to buy
more goods and services from firms that get city certification as
M/WBEs – Minority or Women-Owned Business Enterprises. Although DOE
receives city, state and federal funds, the fact that it is neither
fish nor fowl – neither an agency of the city nor the state – means it
is not bound to uphold city, state or federal antidiscrimination law
in its procurement practices. DOE does require its vendors to have
affirmative action plans on file and be equal opportunity employers,
however, and it encourages proposals from women- and minority-owned
businesses, says spokeswoman Marge Feinberg. But the financial and
technical requirements of the procurement regulations dictate the
terms of who may apply.
Mayoral control of the schools, which is due for review in 2009,
grants DOE its protected status – a status that has a variety of
critics well beyond small business interests. "The Bloomberg
administration takes the unusual and questionable position that its
education policies are not subject to state or city laws that it
wishes to ignore," says Udi Ofer, advocacy director of the New York
Civil Liberties Union. "Bloomberg also refuses to submit his proposed
education regulations to a public comment period, as required by state
and local law. Under Mayor Bloomberg's rationale, education policies
are under his own authority. This is an unacceptable and undemocratic
approach to education policy-setting, and must be considered as the
state explores whether to extend mayoral control."
The biggies "don't speak the language"
Because "the smallest players" were excluded from the textbook bid,
the educators and academics who for decades have developed products
for the city's ELL population are being pushed out, and replaced with
mammoth corporations located well outside of New York. To date, the
DOE has awarded contracts to BookSource, based in St. Louis, and to
the Tennessee-based Ingram, described on its website as "the world's
largest wholesale distributor of book product" as well as a technology
and shipping leader.
It's not just the local business people who object to the change. The
state education department's Pedro Ruiz counts himself among the
critics. "Students need support for different materials in different
languages that the large corporations do not offer," he says. Big
companies may offer works in Spanish and Chinese – "but what about
Portugese, Bengali, Russian and Urdu? These small vendors are the ones
that have the materials. They have been working very closely with the
communities, with teachers and with parents, looking for materials
that exist around the world."
The new regulations mean sharp cutbacks in personalized service. "The
personal connection makes the difference," says Pat West, principal of
PS 90 in the Bronx, who has worked for years with Jesse Harris.
"Sometimes we don't know what we want. He brings things we might be
interested in. He has introduced me to some authors that our librarian
has had come in to talk to the kids. We invite them in, through his
Harris says he built his business "coming in, sitting down with
teachers, talking about materials. We're not salespeople – we're
consultants, we talk to teachers at 7 at night, after hours. We go
into areas – in Bed-Stuy, East New York – where the principal can't
talk during the day. At 7 pm, it's dark. Sales reps won't go into
those areas. If they don't meet at a principal's conference, forget it
– those schools are not being served."
"All of us, it's not just a business," says Batsos. "It's not just a
pair of shoes. It's a product of education that's valid and important,
not just a profit-making venture. We bring materials of the highest
quality to New York City schoolchildren."
"Who'll put together these collections?" Attanasio asks, referring to
series of books organized on a single theme. Her staff includes DOE
veterans who've served as directors of literacy and heads of English
as a Second Language programs; Attanasio was Assistant Director of the
Bilingual Bicultural Mini School in East Harlem before leaving the
public schools. "We represent companies where the faces of our kids
are found in the artwork in the books." The big corporations –
according to the smaller players – can't duplicate small vendors'
grassroots networks and relationships.
Business is business
The ethics of pushing out minority business owners isn't the issue,
says David Ross of the DOE. The issue is economics: Significant
savings will accrue, along with easier, faster, cheaper and better
book ordering for the city's schools. To ease the transition, the DOE
has required all current, small-business vendors to "cut over" or
migrate their lists to a database that will permit Ingram and
Booksource to place and fill new orders. The small vendors have not
been compensated for this service, which Jason Henry, DOE's Chief
Administrator of Purchasing, valued at "less than half of a percent"
of the roughly $57 million that DOE spent on all textbooks last year.
The half a percent comes to about $285,000, nearly equal to the
$300,000 being spent by DOE on outside trade-books consulting by
Accenture. DOE procurement officials say they will reconsider
refunding some of these fees.
"This is a total abuse of power," says Bastos. "The educators are
being left out."
"Hundreds of companies have been put out of business because they
depend solely on New York City," says Harris. "It's mind-boggling. How
can the mayor stand up in front of me and say, 'I want to be your
mayor' and take the bread out of my mouth?"
The state education department is aware of the city's procurement
practices, but has not yet responded to either the DOE or to
Attanasio's Ad Hoc Committee of Minority Business Owners on the issue.
Late last month, the State's Bilingual/ELL Committee of Practitioners
met with Regent Betty A. Rosa, in charge of LEP/ELL programs, and
Senior Deputy Commissioner Johanna Porter to discuss the DOE's revised
bidding practice. Outgoing New York State Education Commissioner
Richard Mills's office confirms receipt of a letter from Attanasio's
group but will not commit to a formal response.
"Hopefully, in meetings with the NYC chancellor, Commissioner Mills
will bring up this issue to see what can be done," said Pedro Ruiz,
but time is critical. Henry and Ross of DOE say that the final parts
of the contract will likely be awarded before the end of November,
after which, small vendors say, their businesses will close.
Improving outcomes for ELL students is a primary goal of the
Klein-Bloomberg administration. According to DOE statistics, fewer
than one in four ELL students graduate from high school. "For students
to improve, they have to have access to good materials," says Bastos.
"They have to have access to people with expertise. How do we provide
educational access to all these students?"
- Helen Zelon
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