When Fort Wayne Community Schools board members sought the $119 million for school projects approved in a referendum last year, they promised they would be good stewards of that money. This week, we learned what an empty promise that was.
A FWCS committee had a choice to pay higher wages or lower wages for $24.7 million in construction projects, and its members chose higher by a 3-2 vote. Voting the other way could have cut from $3.6 million to $7.2 million from the cost, according to one estimate.
At issue is Indiana’s “common wage” law that requires a minimum wage scale for most public construction projects that cost $350,000 or more. The Indiana Court of Appeals has defined “common” for this purpose as “that which is customary, takes place daily, is widely used or is generally known.” The definition in FWCS, however, seems to be a little more specific: Always pay union wages.
The committee members who voted to pay union wages said they had to follow the law, not just accept the cheapest proposal available. So they had to accept the union wage scale proposed by the AFL-CIO instead of the proposal by the Associated Builders and Contractors, which represents non-union “merit shops.” ABC representative Ken Neumeister said ABC wages average about $15 to $20 less an hour than union wages, which could result in a savings of 15 to 30 percent on the projects.
The law requires no such deference to unions, merely that the scale be set by what is “common” or “customary” in this geographic area. As Neumeister reminded the committee, a Southwest Allen County School committee adopted ABC wages on a project approved earlier this week. And given that about 94 percent of the contractors in Allen County are non-union, it certainly seems the case that ABC wages would be the most “common.”
The simple fact is that this FWCS committee had a clear choice of salary scales, and it made the wrong choice. The taxpayers who will be the victims of this lapse of judgment should demand a better justification of the decision than they’re heard so far.
Before winning the $119 million referendum, FWCS had sought a breathtakingly audacious $500 million bond issue. Taxpayers rejected it overwhelmingly, in large part because it was so obviously extravagant that trust in FWCS’ fiscal soberness was destroyed.
The trust seemed to come back with approval of the $119 million request. We won’t know for sure until FWCS seeks another bond issue, but that faith may have been destroyed again.