Voters passed $1.4 billion in Kern County school bonds last November to patch up leaking roofs, construct new state-of-the-art buildings and bring older ones into the 21st century – a massive undertaking that will take years of work.

And as bond projects get rolling, districts are encountering a problem: there aren’t enough local contractors who handle public works projects, meaning millions of local dollars could line the pockets of out-of-town construction workers.

“It's a pretty short list of the big [public works] contractors," said Kyle Carter, a home builder who serves as a trustee on the Kern Community College District board, which passed a $502 million bond measure in November. "We need to grow that list." 

The situation has districts towing the line between fulfilling their obligation to taxpayers to get the lowest bid possible for work, no matter where the contractors come from, and trying to stimulate the local economy, rather than letting those dollars leave the county, and potentially the state.

So Kern Community College District and KHSD, which collectively were approved for more than $780 million in bonds, have been developing creative solutions to keep construction jobs local without resorting to a workforce agreement that would mandate a certain percent of jobs go to locals, among other things.

KHSD is expanding a regional occupational center on Mount Vernon Avenue that would include a construction trades building to encourage more students to join the workforce after high school, Hannah said. 

Meanwhile, KCCD is working on educating existing local contractors who don’t typically bid on public works projects – a much more involved, complicated and regulated process – how to go about navigating red tape and winning bids, said Kyle Carter, a KCCD trustee and homebuilder.

The district could offer classes and even hire a liaison to help walk contractors and subcontractors through the public works bidding process, Carter said.

“Obviously, we don’t want to do anything unethical or illegal, but we do want to do everything we can to keep the work local here,” Carter said.

If those types of outreach efforts took place, the $1.4 billion would not only provide money for fixing up educational buildings, Carter said, but also offer local contractors the opportunity to grow their businesses.

Then they can go out to larger markets like Los Angeles or Fresno and bid on the more lucrative public works projects, then bring the money back to Kern County’s economy, Carter said.

“Instead of other general contractors and subcontractors coming in here and cherry-picking our best projects and taking the money home, why aren’t we doing that to everybody else?” Carter asked. “We have a perfect opportunity to raise that professionalism and experience level in our locals.”

But John Spaulding, executive secretary of the local Building and Construction Trades Council, said that signing a workforce agreement would mandate that a percentage the work would go to locals, help train apprentices to become state-certified in their crafts and create opportunities for careers – not just jobs.

District officials, however, are wary of signing workforce agreements, which they say limits the pool of available contractors and discourages bidding among those who don’t want to fumble through more government red tape. They note that the Central Valley lacks the capacity for such an agreement to work and that it is too inflexible.

“It’s hard enough to get public contract code bidders on our projects,” said Jenny Hannah, facilities director at Kern High School District, which voters approved a $280 million bond for in November. “If I put more requirements on my bidders – even if it’s a really great thing like hiring locally and hiring apprentices out of the shops – I get people who will tell me they won’t bid on the projects. It’s like one more thing they have to comply with. Right now, it’s too much regulation.”

But Spaulding said the regulations are worthwhile, and that not signing a workforce agreement would be a missed opportunity for tradesmen coming up through the craft in Kern County.

“It’s a missed opportunity for our community, our young people, our minority community, our veterans to which we owe so much, and those displaced workers in the oil industry who haven’t had a chance,” Spaulding said. “This is a real opportunity to put them to work on projects in our community and earn a living right here in our county.”

As for training local contractors to find out-of-county jobs? Spaulding says that’s not an immediate concern in Kern County, which has been experiencing exponential growth. It just received more than $1 billion in school construction bonds, is undertaking $630 million in road improvement projects, and will be supplying a workforce for the looming construction of the multi-billion dollar high-speed rail project that is planned to cut through the county. All of this takes place as residential development continues throughout Bakersfield.

“There’s so much work here, and the opportunity is going to stay here for quite awhile,” Spaulding said.

Harold Pierce covers education and health for The Californian. He can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter @RoldyPierce

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