Union contracts for school construction projects dominated Thursday’s Ohio School Facilities Commission (OSFC) meeting, with the commission’s director defending his actions on two particular projects and an association representing contractors calling for him to resign.
At the heart of the debate were project labor agreements (PLA), which are contracts often with unionized firms that set wage scales for projects. Democrats on the commission and Gov. Ted Strickland’s administration representatives defended them as improving safety and quality on a project, while Rep. Kris Jordan (R-Powell) said they increase the cost of a project by as much as 35 percent.
Ohio School Facilities Executive Director Richard Murray has been under criticism for projects involving the New Boston School District and the Ohio School for the Deaf.
New Boston Superintendent Mike Skaggs charged earlier this year that Murray was pushing a PLA on the district, telling the district’s school board that if they sign a PLA, “we’ll make it work.”
Murray told the commission Thursday that he did use those words, but that his intent is being taken out of context. He said he was not suggesting OSFC would be giving more favorable consideration to the district should it sign a PLA, but rather that if one is signed, the OSFC will pledge to make the project work in conjunction with the agreement.
“It was not my intent to go down there and use the commission’s policy to offer a trade-off for the decision of the school board,” he said.
Office of Budget and Management Director Pari Sabety, who chairs the commission, said she believes there is miscommunication between OSFC and the district. Murray agreed and took responsibility for his part in that miscommunication. But he added, “To have my words understood in a way other than intended is disconcerting.”
Still, the matter has captured the eye of the inspector general’s office, who reportedly is investigating whether Murray did anything improper.
Murray has also been criticized over the decision to sign a PLA for the Ohio School for the Deaf construction project, which is being managed by OSFC because it is a state-owned school.
Jordan criticized the PLA, saying it excludes 80-90 percent of the workforce because many contractors aren’t unionized and are therefore unqualified for a PLA. He said the state needs to save and stretch money as much as possible, and not using a PLA could save millions.
Rep. Matt Patten (D-Strongsville), a labor management field coordinator, defended the administration’s actions, saying he has been concerned as a member of the panel with substandard work. He said many of the organizations responsible for that work then ask for more money. He said PLAs are not one-size-fits-all, and that it is up to a school district how to utilize them.
Bryan Williams, a former state legislator and current director of governmental affairs for the Associated Building and Contractors of Ohio, told Murray to resign for being too close to union trades. He echoed Jordan on the PLA for the Ohio School for the Deaf, calling it “wasteful.”
Sabety blasted Williams for his comments, saying that the administration has advocated for high quality standards and given the decision over whether to enter into PLAs, which had been banned under previous administrations, to local school districts.
On the School for the Deaf, she said OSFC is standing in for what is normally a local school board decision. She pointed to Murray’s previous comments on why the commission made the PLA decision on the project.
“With all due respect to the Associated Builders and Contractors of Ohio, I don’t think that is legitimate grounds for the ad hominem attack like this with no direct proof,” she said.