A new study from a local economic think tank found that project labor agreements push up the cost of school construction by as much as 15 percent.

But the research has only fueled more debate about labor agreements, not settled it. The controversial agreements set out a tit-for-tat: School districts or other agencies set rules on bidding that are prized by unions, such as hiring workers through union halls, while unions agree not to strike or stall work.

San Diego Unified gave the green light to a project labor agreement on its $2.1 billion school renovation bond two years ago, igniting a bitter debate between construction companies and unions.

Foes of the labor pacts argue they ramp up costs and give union apprentices an unfair advantage. Backers counter that they offer better careers for construction workers and ensure that locals are hired. Some argue they actually save money by reducing delays and injuries.

The National University System Institute for Policy Research bills their study as the biggest analysis ever done on project labor agreements. It examined 551 school construction projects across California. It did not include projects built under the San Diego Unified labor agreement.

The think tank found that when California school districts used the labor pacts, construction projects cost an average of almost $303 per square foot, markedly more than the $228 state average. Costs were higher even when they factored in whether schools had multiple floors, gyms or a pool, the authors said.

The study was funded in part by Associated Builders & Contractors, a trade group for construction contractors that seeks to ban the pacts. Researchers said the results could shed light in debates over adopting the pacts.

“This is important evidence that really discounts the idea that these are cost-saving measures,” said Erik Bruvold, president and CEO of the think tank.

Unions argue that the study is fatally flawed because it does not take into account the different costs of building schools in different parts of California, including different wage laws and different fuel costs.

Even if school buildings with the labor pacts have been more expensive, they argue, that isn’t proof that the labor pacts are the cause, because complex projects in urban areas tend to be more expensive — and more likely to fall under labor pacts. They also say that because the study was backed by union opponents, some school districts may have been less likely to provide information, skewing the results.

“We have Toyota and Wal-Mart and GM” using the pacts in private businesses, said Murtaza Baxamusa, director of policy and development for the Family Housing Corporation, which develops affordable housing. “Why would they do it if it cost them so much more?”

Both sides have other studies to point to: One Boston study found that the labor agreements plumped up school construction costs by 9 percent to 15 percent; another study that zoomed in on school construction in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island found they didn’t increase costs in a significant way when other factors that make buildings more complex and expensive were screened out.

The researchers pointed out one possible problem in their own study: Many of the projects that were built under a labor pact were built in Los Angeles Unified, the biggest school district in the state. There was so much overlap that researchers couldn’t untangle whether Los Angeles Unified projects might be more expensive for totally different reasons. The school district has a reputation for cost overruns.

San Diego Unified has hired an outside consultant to analyze how construction projects under its labor agreement compare to earlier construction projects that were not covered by the agreement, including cost, construction quality, number of bidders and local hiring. It is scheduled to be finished this fall.

For more on project labor agreements, watch this San Diego Explained:

View more videos at: http://www.nbcsandiego.com.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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