The Minneapolis school board is weighing a proposal to steer more contracts to suppliers owned by women, minorities, gays, lesbians and other traditionally disadvantaged groups.

The Minneapolis School District's proposed "business partner diversity" policy earned praise from many board and audience members at Tuesday night's board meeting, but some said it still doesn't go far enough in a district where the majority of students are of color.

District officials believe the policy would make Minneapolis the first Minnesota school district to shoot for minimum standards for the percentage of contracts going to firms with owners who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered or disabled.

The proposal could go to the board for final approval by the end of the year.

"We're excited about it from a district standpoint," said James Burroughs II, the Minneapolis schools director of diversity and equal opportunity. "This will not only help these businesses, but it will help the kids at our schools see people who look like them doing positive things."

Minneapolis is the state's third-largest school district with about 32,500 students. More than 70 percent of them are students of color.

Burroughs said the school system spent more than $50 million on purchases and construction between 2003 and 2005. But less than 5 percent of those contracts went to women- or minority-owned firms. The goal was 17 percent. The new policy seeks 25 percent participation by such firms.

"We're unique and out in front on this," Burroughs said. "We're opening this up to more diverse communities."

Board members expressed support for the policy but urged the administration to develop a system to centrally manage district contracts. A centralized system, board members said, would help the district track amounts paid to diverse firms and increase financial accountability.

"Now that we have something in place, we can begin to think about accountability," said board member Theartrice "T" Williams. "We can look at what it is we say we want to do and measure the progress we've made toward getting that done."

'Shooting for the ankles'

Steve Liss, the district's operations chief, assured board members his office plans to set up a centralized system soon to track contracts. Burroughs said multiple employees enter into contracts, making it difficult to monitor the agreements.

Board member Chris Stewart praised the proposal but said participation by women- and minority-owned firms may not increase just because it adds GLBT and disabled firms. He noted that the overall target for diverse firms would increase by only 8 percent.

"It still seems like we're shooting for the ankles," Stewart said.

Burroughs said the proposed goal is comparable to that outlined in the policies of organizations such as the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota Twins. Still, he described the goal as a floor and said his office would aim for a higher level.

The school district's Diversity and Equal Opportunity Office hosted a business partner diversity kick-off event last month with several business groups including the American Indian Chamber of Commerce and Minnesota Minority Supplier Development Council.

Bill English, co-chairman of the Coalition of Black Churches/African-American Leadership Summit, said the proposed policy is good but too long in coming. English praised the district for including GLBT firms but said it took a "follower position" by setting the goal at 25 percent.

"We're happy that the board has gotten started," said English, also the director at The City, Inc, a district alternative school. "But the district has a budget of over $500 million dollars, [and] almost none of that comes back to the community."

The proposed policy is expected to get further review by the superintendent and senior district leaders before going to the board for a vote.

English said he intends to be "a force" in pushing to make the policy stronger before the board gives its final approval.

Patrice Relerford • 612-673-4395