Builders’ bids for the first project to fall under the controversial labor agreement on school renovations and construction in San Diego Unified have come in far above the estimated cost.

School district officials say it is far too early to link the higher cost to the labor pact, which requires that employers provide health insurance largely through union plans and do most of their hiring through union halls. Advocates said it would ensure better working conditions; critics contended it would drive up costs and actually undercut local hiring goals.

While San Diego Unified has already been renovating schools with money from its $2.1 billion school facilities bond, the labor agreement didn’t go into effect until recently, leaving many earlier projects outside the umbrella of the agreement. Critics and advocates alike will be closely tracking whether the labor agreement seems to affect the cost of school construction.

That’s why opponents were eager to point out the higher-than-expected costs for the first project that fell under the pact, a new facility at Hoover High School. It had initial bids that were roughly 35 percent over the estimated project cost, though the bids were still within budget. Eric Christen, an activist who opposes the labor agreements, sent out a press release calling it a “debacle” that showed that the promise of local hiring was false. The winning bid has not yet been approved, but if it goes through, the work would be awarded to a Los Angeles County firm.

In an e-mail to the school board, Stuart Markey, who oversees the school renovation bond, cautioned that several factors could chip in to the higher cost: The Hoover building is the first building that falls under special criteria for environmental sensitivity, and includes photovoltaic panels and other features that aren’t usually installed in school buildings.

Xavier Leonard, a spokesman for the Center on Policy Initiatives, a left-leaning think tank that supports the labor pact, argued that the bid actually showed that non-union companies were still willing to vie for jobs under the agreements. Using a Los Angeles contractor doesn’t contradict the idea of local hiring, he said — what matters is where the workers themselves are from.

The school board can choose to reject bids that are more than 10 percent higher than estimated and could potentially re-bid the project outside the labor pact. Markey said he would provide a more detailed analysis of the project costs to the school board later this week.

— EMILY ALPERT

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