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Promises on hiring must be kept

If things go as planned, Jessica Parker will do an internship over the next several months and then be on her way to college -- at age 38.

After completing a two-year community college program, she expects to be a construction industry estimator, pulling down a nice salary while filling a niche that apparently not many minorities fill.

The industrious mother of six could end up being one of the success stories of the Buffalo Public Schools renovation project.

But that will happen only if there's a job at the end of the pipeline for her and others like her lured by the $1 billion effort that's supposed to open doors for those historically shut out.

And a job will materialize only if the Joint Schools Construction Board -- the panel of city and school officials overseeing the multiphase project -- stops rolling over for companies that, in effect, tell the city to take a hike.

The project already has broken one promise. When officials early on were pressed about how utilization goals for minority and women would be enforced, they said the ultimate "stick" would be the fact that companies ignoring the goals in Phase I would be sidelined in Phase II.

But that isn't happening.

It's bad enough that dozens of firms submit the required data but still fall short of the goals. What's more, school officials revealed this week that six companies handling $12.4 million worth of work are "repeat offenders." They've refused to even submit data on Phase I but still got Phase II contracts.

"What action is the board going to take?" Urban League President Brenda McDuffie asked the panel.

It wasn't a rhetorical question -- but it might as well have been.

After a year in office, Mayor Byron Brown's promise to "ratchet up" the pressure sounds very much like predecessor Tony Masiello's angry condemnations that led to nothing.

That's too bad, because many companies are proving it can be done. In fact, the project continues -- at least on paper -- to meet overall goals, because some firms are going well beyond the minimum targets.

And some that fall short -- such as cost consultant Baer & Associates -- are taking other steps, such as offering internships and scholarships to create a hiring pool.

Parker is hoping for both and has an interview next week with the 11-member firm, which has four women but currently no minorities. Baer officials said that cost estimating is hard, tedious work and that it's hard to retain employees of any race.

Parker, who got a taste of it during the 13-week Buffalo Niagara JOBS Initiative training program she just completed, thinks the job would be "a perfect fit" for her.

"Now that I've graduated, my children are very proud of me," said Parker, whose husband is a Dunkin' Donuts manager. During the 13 weeks, she did math homework along with her children, who got to see what education and training can lead to. "Now I'm going into a career . . . [my children] are saying, 'Wow, it's really worth it.' "

But it'll only be worth it if there's a job at the end of the pipeline.

With the schools project and downtown casino under way, and the prospect of a new Peace Bridge and federal courthouse, there's an opportunity to build a new minority middle class. That was a key goal of the 4-year-old schools project, repeated often in the early JSCB meetings.

But an observer could skip those meetings for a year, return and hear board members talking about the same issues, involving the same companies, and making the same empty promises.

They owe Jessica Parker -- and all the others like her -- better than that.


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