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So, you want to be a public servant. You consider becoming a school board member because, unlike being elected to Congress or a legislature where you can get lost in a massive system, one can make a difference in the lives of individuals, both many years into the future and right away.
To be a good school board member, one must have his or her eyes on the ball. The focus has to be on education and making sure student, teachers and employees have the best supportive environment possible.
What has struck me in my nine years of watching various school boards and the decisions they make is how often good education policy falls victim to politics, career goals, campaign contributions, self-satisfaction or social goals that have nothing to do with education.
I read VOSD’s recent article on San Diego Unified school board member Richard Barrera, who served as head of the local Labor Council and has made decisions through his role on the school board to support the labor movement. I don’t want to slam Barrera because I am sure he thinks what he is doing is right – it seems like he really does believe that he can support the labor movement and help students and schools at the same time.
But my view is different. I think a school board member must focus solely on education. The public position should not be used to serve the member’s day job or any other political purpose, for that matter.
For many school board members, the single most powerful role they have is control over the district’s bond program. There is considerable discretion over decisions and important power over how contractors or projects are selected and whether to have project labor agreements, or contracts that mandate decent pay and benefits for construction workers and require mostly hiring through labor halls.
Tremendous temptations are possible because of the potential relationships between contracts and political contributions and, yes, in the worst cases, gifts and gratuities. How a school board member deals with the bond program is where integrity either shines or the member is exposed to the public on his or her true allegiance to outside forces.
There is a group that watches over school board decisions when it comes to bond money – the citizens’ bond oversight committee.
The Sweetwater Union High School District citizens’ bond oversight committee had concerns about project labor agreements. It can be boiled down to one simple question: What is the value added of a project labor agreement that could not be solved with other methods? The committee felt that better construction delivery methods and overall management of the school’s bond program should be explored first before jumping into a contract like a project labor agreement.
Proponents of project labor agreements argue that they result in a better product and trained apprentices along with more hiring of local workers. This may be true, but unfortunately Sweetwater Union High School District jumped into the project labor agreement process before thoroughly accessing the program.
My question is quite simple: Was the policy decision to move forward made before careful analyses of issues, in part, because of Barrera’s influence, even on school districts outside of San Diego Unified?
Adopting project labor agreements or making any big decision should focus on two issues: Will a policy result in a better educated student now and in the future? Will project costs go down and/or will projects be more cost-effective so the students get the best possible environment to learn?
Nick Marinovich is chair of the Sweetwater Union High School District Bond Oversight Committee, former member of the Grossmont Union High School District Bond Oversight Committee and a director on the California League of Bond Oversight Committees. He was employed by the County of San Diego for 32 years and was the project manager for the Hall of Justice.