California schools are facing unprecedented financial challenges and incredibly difficult times. To bridge budget gaps, administrators are making tough decisions including proposed reductions in the school year, issuing pink slips for hard-working teachers and eliminating extracurricular activities. These activities effectively punish students and can impact them irreparably as they work to prepare for college or a career.
But that’s only the beginning. Governor Jerry Brown is suggesting that things could get even worse for public education if Californians don’t vote to raise income and sales taxes in November. Education interests will join the chorus and make the case that schools have been cut to the bone. Absent more money, they claim, the system could collapse.
Here’s my problem with that argument. When it comes to school construction, the truth is we are not spending money efficiently. It’s a tragedy that money is being wasted to build classrooms while classroom teachers are facing layoffs.
How does that make sense? It doesn’t, and as a member of the State Allocation Board (SAB), a government body that provides funding for school construction, I want to see money invested efficiently before I ask taxpayers to give more. I take seriously my responsibility to ensure taxpayer dollars are spent wisely.
Last year, National University released the findings of what is the most expansive study in California history looking at the impact of Project Labor Agreements (PLAs) on school construction costs. PLAs are labor-sponsored agreements that prevent contractors from bidding on school construction projects unless they use union labor or contribute to union pension funds. Opponents call them a political payoff that shortchanges students and taxpayers.
In the study, Measuring the Costs of Project Labor Agreements on School Construction in California, researchers examined 551 school construction projects in 180 different districts across the state. They concluded that PLAs increase the cost to build schools by 13 to 15 percent or up to $32 per square foot. The study’s methodology and conclusions were analyzed and validated by experts at the University of Southern California and found to be credible by both the Association of California School Administrators and California Association of School Business Officials. All three of these groups have been explicit to state that they do not support or oppose PLAs. When they assert that the findings are valid, therefore, it’s beyond question.
Last month the SAB learned over half a billion dollars of taxpayer money- nearly $620 million- will be spent on school construction. If these projects are constructed with PLAs that means we could be wasting $93 million. That’s simply unacceptable and is one reason why many local governments and school districts prefer a fair, competitive open bidding process, where union and non-union businesses compete on a level playing field to earn a contract based upon price and quality.
Taxpayers, parents or students should never have to face an educational system where we are wasting money on school construction, yet can’t afford qualified teachers in the classrooms. The answer is simple, fair and positive. Competitive bidding and school construction contracts awarded based on quality, experience, price and whatever other benefits may be included as part of an open-bidding process. With that, we can save millions, invest in teachers and restore public confidence that we are investing every penny wisely.