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School district approves union-only construction policy

Trustees blasted for placing controversial agreement on 'consent’ agenda|

Alarmed by the attention a particular item received prior to Tuesday’s school board meeting one school district trustee asked for it to be pulled from the consent agenda to allow for further review and discussion.

“It felt like my inbox was flooded today because of concern of this item,” said Cathy Coleman, trustee of the board for Sonoma Valley Unified School District. “Half were on one side, half on the other side. I think it needs its due discussion.”

The item – a Project Labor Agreement – caused a stir in the construction trade business before the board meeting, in part because it was grouped on the consent agenda. The agreement with the North Bay Building and Construction Trades Council and their local unions states that the district will only hire union construction workers. The agreement was approved unanimously by the trustees at the Tuesday meeting, but not before several speakers had their say.

It is unclear exactly how and why the item was placed on the consent agenda, which is typically where routine items that don’t merit public review are placed.

The Sonoma Valley Unified School District superintendent, Socorro Shiels, was dismissed by the board in a closed-door session on Tuesday, the reasons for which were not divulged, and could not be reached for clarification.

Multiple items can be placed on the consent agenda and approved with one vote by board members. It was the placement of the Project Labor Agreement (also referred to in the board packet as a Project Stabilization Agreement) with the consent items that some speakers referred to as “sneaking” in an item without proper review.

In the school board’s bylaws – which are viewable online – the Board of Trustees’ agenda is developed between the district superintendent and the board president and all trustees may ask for an item to be placed on the agenda.

John Kelly, board president, told the Index-Tribune in an interview that the subject has been in discussion at the district for “several months” dating back to June. He indicated that the process at the Sonoma Valley school district is that the superintendent constructs the agenda and then reviews it with the board president and the associate superintendents. The full board members then approve it or amend it.

The board president’s vote on any individual item on an agenda does not have more weight than any other trustee, but the president has sway over the agenda itself, and the placement of agenda items, according to the bylaws.

An incident where an out of area contractor “misclassified their workers” and paid workers “less than the prevailing wage” prompted the labor agreement issue, Kelly said. “When you have misclassified workers you get work product that is not up to the standard that you expect for public structures.”

The PLA was a response to ensure that would not happen again in the future, he said.

Eric Christen, executive director for the Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction, said during the meeting that the coalition was formed specifically to oppose project labor agreements because they are “highly discriminatory” and “increase” costs because it limits the number of bids on projects.

Christen said he was taken aback by the process of this agreement, saying that he’s been “doing this for 21 years” and “with regards to how this is being presented is shocking. You do not for the first time have a discussion” and put an item such as this as an “action item” or put it on a “consent calendar.”

“That’s not how you do this,” Christen said.

“The issue that you’re dealing with is not only contentious and divisive, but any issue like this requires public input, requires it to be agendized for discussion first, and only moved to an action item later. So, I find this troubling…having dealt with hundreds of these over the years. I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said.

Christen said the agreement is being “pushed through” and they filed a public records act to find out “exactly” where it came from and “who” it came from.

Nicole Goehring, with the Associated Builders and Contractors Northern California Chapter, said she’s never seen an item such as this placed for the first time as an action item. Keith Woods, CEO of the North Coast Builders Exchange, said it “looks like somebody tried to sneak through a controversial issue…hoping that nobody would notice.”

Others who spoke during the meeting didn’t take issue with the placement of the agreement on the consent agenda, and said they thought the agreement would bring opportunities for apprentices. Cherie Cabral, who works with state building and construction trades, said the agreement is not unusual, nor is it contentious unless “someone chooses to make it” so.

Randy Bryson, a Sonoma resident who has worked on district construction, was in favor of the agreement saying a contractor he worked for misclassified him and he did not get paid for some of his work. “This levels the playing field,” he said.

Bryson said he was speaking as “a neighbor” who lives in the Valley, referring to some of the trade representative speakers who do not live in the area and are on record in other communities for similar disputes, such as one at Santa Rosa Junior College, and the cities of Sacramento and Elk Grove.

Board members, who voted unanimously in favor of the agreement following public comment, agreed that the program supports the district’s trade and technical programs.

“This community cares a lot about a career tech ed program at our high school and that’s really a feed-through program into these good jobs,” said Trustee Britta Johnson.

Keith Dias, a business representative for sheet metal workers, said he previously coordinated apprenticeships and finds the prospect of hiring local an appealing one.

“I have many apprentices in Sonoma County and in Sonoma that can benefit from this,” said Dias. “One of the biggest issues our apprenticeships have is driving all the way to San Francisco and the South Bay and the East Bay to work. This is an opportunity for our apprentices to work here and train here.”

Contact Anne at anne.ernst@sonomanews.com.

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