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Sonoma school district rescinded labor agreement in May closed-session meeting

The Sonoma Valley Unified School District board of trustees reversed course last month on a controversial agreement with local construction labor unions.

The school board voted 4-1 during a closed-session meeting on May 18 to rescind the project labor agreement, or PLA, it previously approved on Nov. 17, 2020. The agreement with the North Bay Building and Construction Trades Council and its local unions stated that the district would only contract with businesses that employ union construction workers.

District staff did not disclose the reason for rescinding the agreement.

The lone vote against the move was from Trustee John Kelly, according to district officials.

The PLA had been a source of contention since the moment it first appeared last fall on the consent calendar portion of the Nov. 18, 2020 school board meeting agenda – an agenda placement that caught many people by surprise.

Confusion last fall over PLA

The consent calendar is typically reserved for routine matters that have already been vetted by the board and expected to be approved without further discussion. In this case, the PLA had not been broached by SVUSD trustees before being added by district officials to the consent calendar, despite the fact that similar labor agreements have been met with lively public debate when proposed in other districts.

After a story about the placement of the PLA on the school board consent calendar appeared in the Index-Tribune four days prior to the Nov. 17, 2020 meeting, Trustee Cathy Coleman requested the item pulled from the consent calendar and presented for public discussion.

She said her “inbox was flooded with people concerned about this item.”

“I don’t even feel like I have the information to intelligently vote on it at this point because it’s on the consent agenda and all these comments have just come in today,” Coleman said at the time.

Kelly, then the school-board president, responded that the district had “been working on it for the last six months.”

“This has been going on for quite some time,” Kelly said. “This has been reviewed by district staff. It’s been reviewed by the attorneys. It’s gone through multiple rounds. That’s sort of the place where this agreement finds us tonight.”

Other district officials at the meeting said they were not involved in the formulation of the agreement at all.

When asked to comment on the PLA, district Associate Superintendent Bruce Abbott, at that time the highest-ranking district staff member following the dismissal of Superintendent Socorro Shiels prior to the meeting, said he “can’t comment much on this.”

“I just saw this. So I don’t feel up to speed,” Abbott told the board.

Trustee Melanie Blake said that she’d been bringing herself up to speed on the issue since the previous Friday, Nov. 13, ”when I saw the agenda item show up on the consent (calendar).”

Coleman said that after two years on the board, she’d “never had more comments in my inbox on any item than this one.”

After the item was pulled from the consent calendar and following about 20 minutes of public discussion, the board voted 5-0 that night to approve the labor agreement.

Letter from former superintendent

Yet, nearly six months later, questions as to how the PLA came to be introduced on the consent calendar have continued to dog the school board.

In a letter of complaint “regarding procedural irregularities and potential failure to disclose conflicts of interest by certain current or former board members” sent May 17 to the school district, former SVUSD Superintendent Chuck Young questioned Kelly’s motives for placing the PLA on the consent calendar.

Chuck Young letter to school board, dated May 17.pdf

“By doing so (placing the union-only labor agreement on the consent calendar), he was apparently attempting to move this item through without notice or objection,” said Young, noting that in his failed 2018 campaign for the Sonoma Valley seat on the Santa Rosa Junior College Board of Trustees, Kelly reported $16,200 in campaign contributions from North Bay labor unions.

Contributions Spreadsheet.pdf

In the letter, Young called for an investigation into any potential “conflicts of interest” or “impropriety” in Kelly’s actions on the PLA.

“The failure to clear this up and determine if the contract was procured through misfeasance or malfeasance will haunt the district and further damage the community’s perception of the governance and management teams,” said Young.

According to district officials, the school board president and district superintendent set the agendas for school board meetings.

Kelly, school board president at the time of the Nov. 17 meeting, has declined multiple requests for comment on the latest PLA vote and its placement fall on the consent calendar.

Former school district superintendent Socorro Shiels was abruptly fired without explanation by district trustees in a closed-session meeting just prior to the Nov. 17 meeting in which the PLA appeared on the consent calendar. She has also not responded to requests for comment about the PLA.

Public records obtained by the Index-Tribune show that in October of 2020 Kelly worked with union officials from the trades council to develop the labor agreement in the weeks prior to its appearance on the consent agenda.

In an Oct. 21, 2020 email to Jack Buckhorn, CEO of the North Bay Building and Construction Trades Council, and John McEntagart, business manager of IBEW Local 551, the Santa Rosa branch of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Kelly reached out seeking help in crafting language for a PLA for the Sonoma Valley Unified School District.

“I would like to bring this language in November, and I need to get staff started on it if we're going to meet that deadline. Is there any way either of you could send that to this account for me?” Kelly asked, referring to his personal email address from which he was communicating.

On Nov. 9, 2020, Buckhorn sent Kelly a draft of the school district PLA. “Here is our recommended PLA,” wrote Buckhorn. “Thank you for moving this effort forward.”

Next steps

Following the board’s May 18 vote to rescind the agreement, school board President Melanie Blake said the next step will be to notify the North Bay Building and Trades Construction Council about the rescission and extend the council an “invitation to discuss the project stabilization agreement” further.

In a statement issued this week on behalf of the trades council, secretary-treasurer Cherie Cabral said the council was “extremely disappointed” in the District’s decision to “breach their contract with the working men and women of Sonoma County.”

“The negotiated agreement was approved by unanimous vote of the Board after vigorous discussion and public comment,” the statement said.

The district’s next school board meeting is Tuesday, June 8. Visit sonomaschools.org to obtain the meeting's Zoom link.

Email Jason at Jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.

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