Publisher’s Note: Who supports the LEDE Program?

Ronda Watson Barber, OhioMBE Publisher

Happy Birthday James Ragland – For the People. I want to publicly thank Columbus City Schools Board Member Ragland for his support of Black businesses and encouraging integrity in the district’s purchasing process. To date, he is the ONLY OhioMBE endorsed candidate for the Columbus City school board.

After viewing the Sept. 21 school board meeting, Ragland was the sole board member interested in the LEDE program and voted to deny a possible fraudulent contract. All, except Ragland, approved of legislation that allowed a company to receive a $2 million contract to supply water that has questionable business practices.  The other Black and Hispanic board members said NOTHING! FriendsOffice or Friends out of Findlay was accused of using LEDE companies as “pass-through” to receive contracts from the district in the past.

In a Columbus Dispatch article, Ken Schroeder, chief executive officer of Friends, confirmed that his firm planned to set up Daniel Hobbs, a LEDE vendor based in Cincinnati, to buy copier paper from a Friends supplier at the same rate as Friends pays. Then Friends would buy it from Hobbs for slightly more. Such arrangements are common among companies trying to land contracts with entities that have programs designed to help minorities or disadvantaged people, Schroeder said. “We helped him get his business set up,” including doing all of Hobbs’ back-office work, such as invoicing and maintaining customer contacts.”

According to the Dispatch,” in 2016, the state government threatened to kick his company, Reliable, out of its Encouraging Diversity, Growth and Equity program and its Minority Business Enterprise program. The state accused Reliable of being “not ultimately controlled by a socially disadvantaged individual” and said the company instead was “acting as an agent or intermediary in making contracts on behalf of Friends Service Company.”

“On information and belief,″ the two companies were “virtually indistinguishable” in day-to-day operations, the Ohio Department of Administrative Services Equal Opportunity Division wrote to Hobbs in May 2016. Reliable contracted with Friends for supplier arrangements, office rental, and vehicle leases. Its financial documentation (including tax paperwork), invoices and remittances, product website, marketing materials, business locations and contact information (including telephone numbers and email addresses) “appear all to be managed by Friends,” DAS wrote.”

Why is Friends allowed the privilege of contracting with Columbus City Schools when they proudly admitted to abusing the LEDE program? The demoted former chief operating officer who still receives his $150,000 salary in a position that was created to help him as COO, Maurice Oldham, was sad and pitiful as usual.  

Is this practice okay with board members? Is the LEDE program essential to the elected school board? Why are issues that impact disadvantaged businesses overlooked? Why isn’t the district meeting the mandated 20 percent purchasing goal? Why do board members vote on legislation that doesn’t have LEDE participation? Why is legislation forward to the board without LEDE participation? 

I have been asking these questions for years, advocating for Black-owned businesses to get more contracting opportunities with Columbus City Schools. You get the elected officials that you vote for. The following incumbents are running for Columbus City School Board: Michael D. Cole, James Ragland, and Ramona R. Reyes. When the three ask for your vote, ask them about their votes on contracts without LEDE vendors. Ask about the $2 million water contract awarded to a company accused of defrauding the district and why they remained silent. 

Mohamed Ali, Kevin Hairston, and Christina Vera are running for a seat on the board. Ask them how they would improve the LEDE program and expand opportunities for Black vendors.

Our votes and dollars are vital to the success of Columbus City Schools. Black Business Matter. Many people employed by the district live high on the hog at the expense of poor kids in the district. We can not continue with business as usual.

Just my thoughts…rwb

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