Language Companies Shut By New Dept. of Ed Policy

Print More

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 DOE regulations.

“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,” Ross said.

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 contacts.”

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