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SVUSD, labor union locked in litigation over construction contracts

A labor group has filed a lawsuit against Sonoma Valley’s public school district over its decision to rescind a controversial pro-union construction labor agreement approved in November.

The North Bay Building and Construction Trades Council’s lawsuit seeks a court order to have the Sonoma Valley Unified School District comply with the 10-year agreement also referred as a Project Stabilization Agreement – or PSA, according to a lawsuit filed July 9 in Sonoma County Superior Court.

The lawsuit also wants a judge to stop the Sonoma Valley Unified School District from awarding construction contracts worth more than $50,000 and covered by the PSA to contractors who do not comply with the terms of the agreement, the complaint states. That includes hiring construction workers through the unions’ hiring halls affiliated with the North Bay Building and Construction Trades Council.

The board of trustees for the Sonoma Valley Unified School District unanimously approved the PSA on Nov. 17. But on May 18, the board of trustees voted in a closed session to rescind the deal with a 4-1 vote.

In March, the district also claimed that the agreement lacked language regarding drug testing, according to letters filed with the complaint.

But one of the North Bay Building and Construction Trades Council attorneys, Eileen Goldsmith, called that issue a “pretext.” The district’s drug testing language proposed during negotiations was “materially indistinguishable” from the language included in the PSA, lawyers for the labor group wrote in their complaint. The district actually wanted to narrow the scope of the agreement, the complaint alleged.

“The school district raised the issue of allegedly insufficient drug testing language as a pretext to try to renegotiate other terms in its binding contract,” the labor group’s attorneys wrote.

The complaint noted the trustees voted to rescind the agreement after two new members joined the board. Trustees Troy Knox and Anne Ching were elected Nov. 3 and sworn in Dec. 15.

The lawsuit also named Dr. Adrian Palazuelos in his capacity as superintendent. Palazuelos is new to the district. His first day was June 1. The previous permanent superintendent, Socorro Shiels, was fired during a closed session on Nov. 17 – before the trustees voted on the PSA.

Palazuelos said in an email on Aug. 30 that legal counsel advised the district that the original PSA “lacked legally required language regarding drug testing.”

“Therefore, the District Board of Trustees rescinded the legally flawed PSA and has strenuously tried to renegotiate with the council to develop a legally compliant PSA,” Palazuelos said. The district did propose to work with a mediator on a “mutually agreeable revised legally compliant PSA,” he added.

Instead, the North Bay Building and Construction Trades Council filed the lawsuit which, he said, “will require the district to spend public dollars to defend itself – public dollars that could have been used to educate children.”

He added, “The district is hopeful that the council will drop its lawsuit and instead return back to the negotiation process so the time, energy and money that will be spent defending against the unnecessary lawsuit can be used instead for the education of students,” Palazuelos said.

In its lawsuit, the North Bay Building and Construction Trades Council included a letter from April 22 during which its representatives “respectfully” declined the district’s request to have a mediator. The labor representatives said there was no “substantive difference” between what the district had proposed during negotiations and the drug-testing language already included in the approved agreement.

The trustees discussed the lawsuit in closed session on Aug. 26. No action was taken.

Before the start of the closed session, Cherie Cabral, secretary/treasurer of the North Bay Building and Construction Trade Council, urged the trustees to read the complaint in its entirety, along with the attachments. The North Bay Building and Construction Trade Council wants to resolve the matter without “huge expenditures” of public funds, she said.

“It continues to be a source of consternation to us at the building trades, me in particular, how we found ourselves at this point,” Cabral said.

Union representatives have called the proposal fair and cost effective, one that leads to fair and living wages, as well as quality work and improved safety measures at job sites. The PSA gave preference to local hires. This would boost the hiring of local workers and apprentices, they said at the board of trustees’ meeting in November. The meeting was online due to the pandemic.

However, opponents claimed that the agreement would be costly to implement and discriminatory against nonunion workers, stressing that most local workers could not be hired under the PSA.

Opponents also accused the trustees present on Nov. 17 of trying to pass an agreement without public scrutiny. The item had been placed on the consent agenda, usually used for routine matters. The item was pulled from the consent agenda and placed on the regular agenda after the proposal whipped up a storm of protest.

During the public meeting on Nov. 17, John Kelly, then president of the board of trustees, said the district had worked on the agreement for six months.

It did so after the district was alerted that an out-of-area contractor, hired through a program operated by Pacific Gas and Electric, had misclassified workers in the district. The project entailed installing energy upgrades in schools with funds from the Volkswagen settlement which the car company had paid after deliberately misleading regulators on their cars’ actual pollution emission levels.

The misclassified workers were paid less than prevailing wages for the area, Kelly said. The district had to deal with potentially having “flickering light bulbs throughout the entire district for the next 30 years” because of a contractor using misclassified workers, he added.

In May, Kelly cast the “no” vote when the board of trustees rescinded the agreement with a 4-1 vote in a closed session.

The North Bay Building and Construction Trades Council’s attorneys on Aug. 30 signed an amended complaint and filed it in Sonoma County Superior Court. It excludes a reference to the district’s Aquatic Complex project, the pool scheduled to be built at Sonoma High School, which was included in the complaint filed on July 9. The pool project was already under contract and was not covered by the agreement, Goldsmith said.

The lawsuit, which alleges breach of contract, also seeks damages, attorneys’ fees and legal costs.

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