Two months after being chosen by Gov. Ted Strickland to lead the Ohio School Facilities Commission, Richard Murray attended the school board meeting in the small Ohio River district of New Boston.
The message he delivered: Your building project has problems, but if you use union labor, they will go away, according to New Boston Superintendent Mike Staggs.
“If you sign the PLA, we’ll make it work,” Murray told the packed room about a “project labor agreement,” according to Staggs’ detailed notes of the meeting that included union officials.
Now, Ohio Inspector General Thomas P. Charles is digging into the case to determine whether Murray has crossed any lines by pushing for districts to use union labor through project labor agreements, according to several people interviewed by state investigators. Charles declined to comment.
Since its inception in 1997, the commission has distributed more than $8.3 billion for school construction and renovation, resulting in 760 new and renovated schools for about 423,000 children.
“We would categorically deny any quid pro quo for anything,” said commission spokesman Rick Savors. Murray was in meetings Friday and was not available for comment, Savors said.
Staggs said Murray attended a Nov. 19 meeting and discussed projected cost overruns as well as the need for a costly retaining wall at New Boston’s site for an $18.5million school for its 467 students.
The school board was considering whether to enter a project labor agreement that would require the use of union labor.
“Our board was under the impression that if we signed a PLA, we wouldn’t have to worry about excess cost or the retaining wall,” Staggs said.
He thinks the commission delayed state approvals because the school board backed out of the PLA after union bids in a nearby district came back 22 percent over budget. The commission then objected to the New Boston building site, using what Staggs considered bogus reasons, and proposed another site without consulting school officials, he said.
“It’s unethical … unbelievable,” Staggs said. The original site ultimately was approved by the state about a month ago.
Strickland spokeswoman Amanda Wurst said the governor is awaiting Charles’ report and will carefully review his analysis and recommendations.
“The governor knows Rich Murray to be a man of high integrity with a dedication to making decisions in the best interest of the people and schoolchildren of Ohio,” Wurst said.
Murray formerly was the head of Ohio LECET, a group that assists union workers and the firms employing them in winning construction contracts. Strickland recommended him for the facilities commission post, and the commission agreed, hiring him Sept. 3.
Two of the commission’s three voting members report directly to the governor. Strickland, a Democrat, is seeking re-election this year with unions’ backing.
Last month, Murray unilaterally decided that union workers will rebuild the Ohio deaf and blind schools in Columbus’ Beechwold neighborhood, saying a project labor agreement there will help to ensure safety.
Murray replaced Michael Shoemaker, a Democratic former state lawmaker and school teacher who also had been a Strickland pick. Shoemaker said he was under intense pressure from union officials to oust non-union firms from jobs.
For the first 10 years of the commission’s operations, under Republican governors, it prohibited PLAs or the payment of prevailing union wages, which effectively locked unions out of the work, Shoemaker said. When Strickland took over, unions were demanding payback, Shoemaker said.
“This is still a fight in the civil war over prevailing wage that started in 1997,” Shoemaker said Friday.
“To be fair, I could have probably still been there if I had thrown out the non-union guys. I think the construction managers have been told: ‘You find something wrong with these non-union contracts.’ I think that’s the method to the madness.”
Tony Mantell, superintendent of the small Clay school district near Portsmouth, said he has been interviewed by investigators amid the district’s work on a building project.
“I fear that everybody’s motives are not pure right now” at the school facilities commission, Mantell said. “I don’t feel it should be a union, non-union issue.”
Elaine Barnes quit her job as green schools program manager this year partly because of what she described as Murray’s unwritten rules to help unions.
“I think it’s just borderline criminal what’s going on,” Barnes said.
“The last thing I’m going to do is spend my energy on projects where the rug is constantly being pulled on people. It was really decimating the morale of the design-construction team,” she said. “Everybody knew what was going on, but nobody spoke about it. It felt nefarious. … The entire executive staff was running around like scared chickens.”
Staggs wrote Strickland about his concerns Feb. 17 and complained to commission members at their Feb. 25 meeting. Murray said there was no connection between the PLA, or lack of one, and the approval of the district’s building site.
Chairman J. Pari Sabety, also the state budget director, said at that meeting that there had been no change in policy permitting school districts to choose between union labor or the hiring of non-union companies.
Kathleen Somers, president of the Ohio Valley chapter of the non-union Associated Builders and Contractors, said school districts have been steered toward more-expensive union labor since Murray took over the commission.
“They are feeling a lot of pressure to use PLAs. It all seems to boil down to ‘You have to play ball my way, or you’re not going to get your money.’ It just doesn’t seem tax dollars should be manipulated in this matter.”