ATLANTA-Hundreds of buses have begun carting children to Atlanta schools, but none of those vehicles are riding on tires supplied by Prior Tire Co. The Atlanta dealership lost out in a bidding procedure instituted by the Atlanta Public School District three years ago to level the playing field for minority-owned businesses.
An African-American-owned tire dealership that submitted a higher bid than Prior's won the contract, and Prior Tire has sued the Atlantaschool district in an effort to get it to change its bidding process.
Far from a simple contractual dispute, the matter has been swept up in the tide of a nationwide debate on affirmative action and its stepchild: the setting of preferential minority quotas.
That not only saddens, but angers Leon Goldstein, 70, chairman of Prior Tire, founded in 1920 by his dad, Abraham-``Mister Abe'' to customers. His reaction stems from the fact Prior Tire is proud of its long history of employing minority workers. It hired its first black salesman back in 1932.
Opponents of quotas call Prior's predicament a glaring example of what is wrong with the system.
That alleged inequity is the crux of a lawsuit Prior filed March 29 in U.S. District Court in Atlanta against the school district, its superintendent and board members.
Attempting to secure a contract to provide new and retreaded tires and related services for the district's several hundred buses, Prior Tire bid about $260,000-lowest among five bids.
Although Atlanta-based Quick Fleet Tire's bid was $6,000 higher, it landed the bus contract based on a formula in which bids from minority-owned companies are discounted up to 15 percent. If selected, however, the company will be paid at the rate of its original bid.
Pursuing the lawsuit has made Mr. Goldstein the target of derision from the very community he has served, defended and employed for years. Perhaps that's what saddens him most, for almost 70 percent of his employees-from retail store manager to recap plant manager, assistant managers and office personnel-are African-Americans or women.
``We've been in the forefront, historically, in the promotion of equal rights,'' he told TIRE BUSINESS. ``We haven't changed; we still stand for equal rights.''
It's no less wrong now than in pre-civil rights days to not treat people equally, he stated. ``But it's wrong now to give them preferential treatment. Both are wrong.''
Mr. Goldstein, whose son, Robert, is company president, said the school district's current procedures call for awarding 36 percent of its contracts to blacks and 1 percent to women. ``They call them goals; I view them as quotas.''
Because ``92 percent of the kids in Atlanta schools are black,'' he charged that when the district ``pays a premium to do business with an African-American entrepreneur, you're taking the money from these kids' education in order to benefit one individual.''
The case is a matter of principle to Mr. Goldstein, who vowed that anything he might recover from the court-the suit seeks $35,000 in compensatory damages-will be donated to the school system ``in order to benefit and teach children to live in a multicultural society.
``We have no personal gain in this. What we're seeking is that (the district) change its bid procedures.''
Roughly half of Prior Tire's business is commercial-it operates 18 tire service trucks-30 percent wholesale, 10 percent retail, and the remainder consists of state and local government and state-wide school district business.
The one-outlet dealership, which averages $15 million in sales annually, has a 235,000-sq.-ft. complex on 4.5 acres in downtown Atlanta. And, Mr. Goldstein points out, ``we have a very, very large African-American customer base.''
Prior's lawsuit-about halfway through a four-month discovery phase and headed for trial possibly in October-is being handled by the Southeastern Legal Foundation (SLF), a conservative organization supported by public donations.
SLF attorney Valle Simms Dutcher of the Atlanta law firm Proctor & Associates said she imagines ``most governmental programs that have any brand of set-asides or quota systems are re-evaluating'' their procedures.
That comes in light of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down a construction industry practice whereby contractors give preferential treatment to bids from minority subcontractors.
She described Mr. Goldstein as a ``fine, upstanding member of the Atlanta community. . . who certainly does not discriminate in his personal life.''
Still, she said, shortly after the lawsuit was filed, the Prior Tire chairman was harassed by several local groups that picketed outside the dealership with bull horns.
``It was tough for him, but he was very brave and very polite,'' she said. ``He went to the group leaders and told them they were welcome to picket, but not to harass his employees or disrupt his business.'' Eventually they stopped and things died down.
Like his father before him, Mr. Goldstein is on the southeastern regional board of the Anti-Defamation League, an organization that fights discrimination and bigotry. While he thinks there's a place for affirmative action-in educational institutions and for companies hiring minorities-he said it doesn't belong in public sector contracting.
He doesn't blame Quick Fleet for the controversy. ``They're nice people-nothing wrong with them. What's wrong is the system.
``People talk about the need to level the playing field for companies that are smaller than we are. I don't think that's true today. I think Quick Fleet buys as good as we do. They have the same advantages. . . . (Tire makers) don't have special deals for white folks and other deals for black folks. . . .''
Should the school district change its procedures, ``we'll walk away'' from the case, Mr. Goldstein said.
But he's prepared to pursue the case to the U.S. Supreme Court: ``If you don't stand up for some things,'' he said, ``you stand for nothing!''