Commission exec has duty to help schools get best possible deal on projects

Thursday, August 19, 2010  02:56 AM


Whether state law frowns on favoring union contractors or is silent on the issue, to engage in such a bias when spending public dollars is a bad policy that cheats Ohioans.

The purpose of the Ohio School Facilities Commission is to set standards for and monitor the construction and remodeling of billions of dollars worth of school buildings, paid for by a combination of state bond money and local tax dollars. The commission is charged with getting the best deal for taxpayers, not implementing any governor’s labor-relations philosophy. School-construction contracts certainly should not be used to shower unprecedented largess on the current governor’s favorite special interest.

Richard Murray, whom Gov. Ted Strickland appointed as executive director of the commission, is unabashed by the Ohio inspector general’s report that says he has made plain his preference for union labor when working with local school districts trying to build new schools.

Murray, who was employed for 12 years as Ohio director of a union-advocacy group and who remains a member of Local 423 of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, says he doesn’t have to be neutral — that such a requirement “is simply nowhere in law or in rule or in policy of this agency.”

It is, however, the only ethical approach to take when holding the purse strings to about $3 million per day in public spending. Murray is supposed to help local school officials, who aren’t construction experts, make the best deals for their districts. That means soliciting bids and choosing the contractors who can do the work needed for the best price, regardless of whether their employees pay union dues.

The inspector general’s report shows, however, that Murray has pushed districts to sign project-labor agreements, which typically shut out nonunion shops and, consequently, drive up the cost of projects. Such agreements require any workers on the project to be dues-paying union members, if only for the duration of the project.

Nonunion companies often decline to bid rather than comply; fewer companies bidding mean less competition and higher costs.

What were local school-board members and superintendents supposed to think when the union delegation visiting them to lobby for union labor included Murray, the guy who controls the funds? It’s obvious how officials of Scioto County’s Clay Local School District felt, after union bully Gary Coleman, angry that the district was using a nonunion contractor on part of a project, screamed profanities at them in what was supposed to be a business meeting. All that time, Murray sat by silently.

Clay officials eventually signed a project-labor agreement, but they complained to Strickland about Coleman’s and Murray’s behavior.

Murray said later he wasn’t proud of the incident.

He should feel just as bad that his support for unions, rather than for school districts and taxpayers, drives up the cost of projects — even when nobody screams profanities.