Unions allege school district violated state law

June 2, 2009

By Chantelle Lusebrink

Union groups attended a school board meeting May 27 and alleged that Issaquah School District officials violated state law by not using union apprentices in construction projects.Before the meeting, fliers were dispersed at Issaquah High School, the district administration building and local stores around the city.

Union officials claim district officials didn’t follow 2007 state mandates requiring 15 percent apprenticeship program utilization for the Issaquah High School remodel. 

“What the district has done is use a loophole in the law to not require current state apprenticeship requirements,” said Ben Freitag, a King County building organizer for the International Union of North America in the Puget Sound area. “In this situation, their bond is pre-2007, so they don’t have to require 15 percent apprenticeship utilization. But they could have.

“We would like to have seen them do the right thing,  to go beyond the call here and require what the current state mandate is for apprenticeship utilization for the Issaquah High School project,” he added.

Steve Crawford, director of capital projects for the district, said district officials are following every state law. 

“The state did increase the percentage of apprenticeship program training in the new legislative session to 15 percent,” Crawford said. “However, they did recognize that there is a cost impact, because you are basically adding more trainees to any project and that translates to a cost in labor. In recognition of that, they excluded any projects that were using voter approved funds approved prior to July 2007.” 

That means all projects budgeted from the 2006 voter approved construction bond aren’t mandated to follow the new 15 percent apprenticeship mandates, he said.

“So, when they say in fliers that we didn’t abide by the law, they are wrong,” he said.

Since the projects weren’t budgeted with a 15 percent apprenticeship rate in mind, there simply isn’t enough funding to add those on to the project costs today, Crawford said. 

“The state realized that and didn’t want to put an unfunded mandate on school districts,” he said, adding that district officials won’t pull the contract and re-award it. 

The issues are coming up now because of the recession, he added.

“It is a very competitive market now and people are getting very tight. There are contractors and subcontractors bidding on work to basically pay overhead and keep people employed,” he said. 

When asked why union workers didn’t dominate contracts for Issaquah High School, Crawford said the state’s bid law has a lot to do with it. 

District officials are required by law to take the lowest responsible bidder on a contract, Crawford said. 

For example, school board members awarded a tentative contract for the new elementary school, near Pine Lake, May 27 to Babbit Neuman Construction because they submitted the lowest bid at $14.36 million. 

“It is my understanding that, currently, union wage rates are higher than prevailing wage rates by $3 to $4, and that they have bargaining agreements that call for increases for another $2 to $3 an hour, so they are falling further behind,” Crawford said.

“I disagree where apprentice mandates cost more money,” Freitag said. “The main reason is that an apprentice makes less money. They start at 50 percent to 60 percent of what a journeyman makes on the pay scale.”

When building the third runway at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, officials saved money by using apprentices, Freitag said, adding that he doesn’t believe union workers make more than other prevailing wageworkers.

The Issaquah High School project has about 41 percent union workers, Crawford said. 

A calculation of the percentage of union workers for the new elementary school hasn’t been done yet,  but major subcontractors for the heating and ventilation systems, and plumbing and electrical work are union workers, he added. 

Reach Reporter Chantelle Lusebrink at 392-6434, ext. 241, or clusebrink@isspress.com. Comment on this story at www.issaquahpress.com.

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