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PD Editorial: Don’t tip the scale on school construction contracts

Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

Santa Rosa taxpayers should know — and be disturbed — that their school board is considering a policy that’s likely to drive up costs for school improvement projects.

At issue are project labor agreements, which discourage open competition for publicly funded construction projects by imposing union wages and other union-related costs on nonunion contractors and subcontractors. PLAs are on the agenda for Wednesday’s board meeting.

This isn’t an academic issue for Santa Rosa City Schools or residents of Sonoma County’s largest school district. This is about taxpayers’ money — and lots of it.

Voters have authorized more than $200 million in bond funding for construction at Santa Rosa schools — covering everything from new heating and air conditioning systems and classroom renovations to upgraded fire alarms and lights for football fields.

The school board is still allocating money from the most recent bond acts, which were approved by voters in 2014: Measure I, a $175 million bond for high schools, and Measure L, a $54 million bond for elementary schools.

When they spend that money, school board members have an obligation to get the lowest reasonable price — the biggest bang for the public’s buck.

They know that. In their 2014 ballot measures, the school board promised independent citizens’ oversight, annual audits and no money for administrators’ salaries. Neither measure made any mention whatsoever of project labor agreements.

Unions claim that PLAs help bring jobs in on time. That’s debatable.

This isn’t: PLAs agreements often require contractors to hire at local union hiring halls (though they don’t require the union members to be local residents); pay union wages that may be higher than state-mandated prevailing wages; pay into union benefit funds; and contribute to union-operated training programs.

Unions like the agreements because they scare away nonunion contractors, many of whom have their own employees and benefits programs they would have to pay for on top of PLA-mandated costs.

With fewer bidders, there is less competition, and that’s a formula for higher costs.

Santa Rosa Junior College promised a study to determine the fiscal impact of a project labor agreement on the renovation of the main campus auditorium. The worked was completed six months behind schedule and about $4 million over budget, but SRJC officials blamed other exigencies and imposed a PLA on an even larger project.

Jeff Kunde, a longtime SRJC board member, noted at the time that voters might have rejected the college’s $410 million bond measure had they known that the board would require PLAs.

Sonoma Valley Unified School District trustees imposed a PLA requirement last fall at a meeting where some school board members expressed surprise that the issue was even on the agenda. The policy was subsequently rescinded in response to public opposition.

To its credit, the Santa Rosa school board scheduled Wednesday’s meeting to discuss project labor agreements. Any vote on the issue would come at a subsequent meeting, Superintendent Anna Trunnell said in an email.

The 6 p.m. online meeting, which can be viewed at srcschools.org/Page/4453, is an opportunity for taxpayers to weigh in. Here’s our view: All contractors — union and nonunion — should compete on a level playing field for publicly funded work. That’s the essence of competitive bidding. Don’t allow project labor agreements to tilt the balance.

You can send letters to the editor to letters@pressdemocrat.com.

Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

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