There is something very wrong with the way Miami-Dade County Public Schools has been handing out its business contracts – and it is a problem that is at least 24 years old.

According to the Miami-Dade Chamber of Commerce and the district’s own figures,  the nation’s fourth largest school system  has awarded more than 95 percent of its $15 billion worth of contracts for procurement and construction to non-black businesses over the 24-year period. Only about 4.5 percent has gone to businesses owned by African Americans – and, of that, three percent was for construction, leaving less than two percent for procurement.
The chamber disclosed these unacceptable figures during a press conference on Tuesday, backed by organizations such as the NAACP.  Mr. Bill Diggs, the chamber’s president and chief executive officer, rightly said in a statement  that there is  a “drastic disparity of contracting services,” adding, “The problem is real, measurable and has to stop. The time has come to publicly require the school system to do the right thing.”

In a statement following the press conference, the school district did not try to argue the point. The district said it has been meeting with the business organization and the NAACP “to address inequities in business practices.” It went on to say that “we have pledged to find solutions in 23 days.”

Exactly why this inexcusable state of affairs has been allowed to persist for more than two decades is not explained. The district said the “inequities” were uncovered in a report by its own Minority/Women Business Enterprise Office. If that means the district was starting to address the problem, then that is commendable. But it does not excuse the fact that an unacceptable situation was allowed to exist that has been denying African American business owners many millions of dollars in contracts from a public agency that gets all its funds from
taxes that all Miami-Dade residents pay, including, of course, African Americans.

The root of the problem seems to be the certification procedure which the system set up and which seems to make it all but impossible for small black-owned business to get a piece of the pie. Black business owners, it seems, had to jump through a variety of hoops for a year before finally being certified to do business with the district – and even then some of them got nothing.

As Mr. Diggs said, this shameful situation must end now and Miami-Dade County Public Schools must immediately revise its contract award practices and do right by black business owners. It is not a handout that is being sought; what is being sought is fairness and an opportunity to compete on a level playing field. At a time when small businesses are so very heavily being touted, from President Barack Obama down, as the salvation of the American economy, it is a shame that the black community, which so badly needs the contracts and the jobs that come with them, was being effectively shut out.

There is need also for the Miami-Dade County School Board to order a thorough investigation into how the inequities were allowed to exist for 24 years and take appropriate action to immediately end whatever practices perpetuated them. There is little confidence that school district officials, left to themselves, will indeed make the necessary changes. They did not do it for nearly a quarter-century.