Peralta Community College District Trustees this week will be asked this week to approve an $8 million no-bid contract to build Laney College’s new art building using a controversial interpretation of the California Public Contract Code.
The contract is on the consent agenda of the trustee board’s regular meeting scheduled for Wednesday, 7 p.m. The meeting will be held at the College of Alameda Student Center, 555 Atlantic Ave. in Alameda.
Chancellor Elihu Harris is asking trustees to ratify the contract he has already awarded to Meehleis Modular Builders of Lodi.
The issue of piggyback contacts in modular building has attracted the attention of labor unions because they could be used to evade the prevailing wage laws which keep wages high on public work projects in cities such as Oakland.
Matt Bender, spokesperson for the state Department of General Services, said it was “fair to say that labor organizations are concerned about whether the piggyback contracts for modular construction violate prevailing wage law.”
The 26,000-square-foot one-story art building at Laney—which is planning to include three modular buildings under a common roof united by covered walkways—is scheduled for completion by January 2006 on the East 10th Street site now occupied by the campus tennis courts.
The new art building will replace the existing Laney College Art Annex Building along Interstate 880, which stands on property that CalTrans needs for highway retrofitting and construction. CalTrans is financing the new building.
In the board agenda description of the item to be presented by Peralta General Services Director Sadiq Ikharo, district officials say that the Meehleis contract was awarded after the district solicited three proposals from modular builders. The narrative says that the contract was awarded “under a ‘piggyback’ contract” between Meehleis and the Gustine Unified School District in Merced County.
“Under this arrangement,” the board agenda narrative continues, “the formal public bidding process is not required. Because the piggyback agreement expired on March 28, and the March 22 Board meeting was canceled, it was necessary for the Chancellor to approve the contract with Meehleis.”
While Meehleis lists no community college construction on its website, it lists completed and ongoing modular construction in public school districts throughout Northern and Central California. The company’s local modular projects include John Muir School in San Leandro, Coleman and Galinas elementaries in San Rafael, Eagle Peak Elementary in Concord, and Valley View in Pleasanton.
Chancellor Harris declined to comment for this article. Peralta Community Colleges Director of Communications Jeff Heyman said that the district “will have a response at the board meeting. We’ll be answering trustees’ questions, and Sadiq will explain thoroughly what we are doing and why we are doing it.”
The so-called “piggyback” contract practice comes from Section 20652 of the Public Contract Code, which allows community college districts to circumvent the normal bidding process by leasing or purchasing “data-processing equipment, materials, supplies, equipment, automotive vehicles, tractors, and other personal property” through other public agencies. Public school districts have a similar provision in their contract code.
However recently school districts have begun using the provision to authorize, without bid, the construction of an entire modular-built school campus by attaching it to the construction of a school in a different district by the same company.
The practice has become so controversial that the State Allocation Board, at its Feb. 23 meeting, directed its staff to request an opinion from the California Attorney General on the legality of “one school district piggybacking on another school district’s modular construction contract.”
The Allocation Board consists of the state Finance Director, the Director of the Department of General Services, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, and several members of the state legislature.
In its bid proposal to MSE and Peralta, Meehleis said that some of the art building construction would be done at the company’s factory and some would be done on site in Oakland. Calling itself “a non-union company,” Meehleis said that prevailing wage labor rates in the contract would only apply “for work not performed at [the company’s] plant.”
Earlier this year, the State Building & Construction Trades Council of California criticized construction piggybacking on its website, saying the practice “locks all the school construction projects with the original contractor and prevents other reputable, local contractors from submitting a bid.”
Kellé Lynch-McMahon, project manager for the Oakland-based engineering consultants MSE Group which is managing the art building construction project, said that the concept for the new arts building “has always been modular because of the budget and the timeline.”
Noting that “as usual, the state government wants Cadillac construction on a Volkswagen budget,” Lynch-McMahon said, “CalTrans requires the existing annex building to be demolished by June of 2005, and modular construction provides the most expedient and cost-effective way to replace it in the time required.”
Demolition of the tennis court site where the new art building will be constructed began last week, with construction of the buildings themselves scheduled to begin in mid May.ª