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Policies favoring union contractors dumped by school facilities panel

Local school districts that want state funds to help pay for building projects can no longer require the use of project labor agreements or the payment of prevailing wages in their construction contracts.

The Ohio School Facilities Commission voted Thursday to rescind these and other union contractor-friendly policies that were put in place in 2007 by former Governor Ted Strickland.

At that same meeting, the commission also voted to hire Richard Hickman Jr. as its new executive director.  Hickman previously held the same post from June 2005 to February 2007 under former Governor Bob Taft.

By reversing two Strickland-era resolutions approved in 2007, OSFC Chairman Tim Keen said the commission was merely returning to policies that were in place for the first decade of the commission’s existence.

Strickland's appointees on the commission rejected a long-standing policy that required school districts to accept the lowest responsible bidder and instead allowed local school districts to include project labor agreements and other union-sought provisions in their construction contracts.

Non-union contractors complained that those policies effectively prohibited them from bidding on projects.

The resolution adopted Thursday brings the commission full-circle and declares that the commission will not approve – that is, provide funding for – local school construction contracts that include such provisions as a condition for submitting a bid.

The policy change affects all contracts requiring commission approval that had not been advertised for bid as of Thursday. It is even possible that some contracts already approved by the commission may be reconsidered.

“There are a number of districts where projects are in progress and where there are certain agreements that we previously authorized under Resolution 07-98 . . . we can examine each of those agreements and determine the applicability of this resolution to those projects,” Keen said.

OSFC Interim Executive Director Eric Bode, who will be leaving the commission to pursue other career opportunities, said only 13 districts in the state approved PLAs and 15 have prevailing wage requirements. Some additional districts have other criteria affected by the change.

State Auditor David Yost had sent a letter to commission members supporting the reversal of the PLA policy, saying such contract provisions could increase construction costs for districts facing tough economic times.

“By their very nature, PLAs distort the price-setting function of the markets,” he wrote. “At best, they represent the purchase of certain conditions or process deemed by some to be valuable, but extraneous to the purchase of a new building.”

In other business, Bode reported on actions the commission's staff had taken in response to an August 2010 Inspector General’s report that alleged former Director Richard Murray overtly favored union contractors over non-union ones by helping them secure school construction contracts.

Bode said a consultant had been retained to help design a system that will allow the commission to track the performance of trade contractors and use the data in a consistent evaluation process.

In response to the IG's recommendation that the commission develop a standardized bid checklist, Bode said a construction manager/architect advisory committee is being created to carry out this task.

The IG’s report also advised that the OSFC document post-occupancy problems, such as latent defects in buildings that districts discover after moving into a new facility. Bode suggested a proactive approach under which OSFC would conduct post-occupancy evaluations, perhaps two years after a building is put into use.

OSFC member Robert Blair, DAS director, asked if an appeal process exists to allow contract managers or architect firms to dispute evaluations. Bode said there is not an appeal process, but the companies are able to offer information to the commission.

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