Funding for charter school construction and more paired-down building design requirements are some of the changes Republicans are contemplating as they prepare to regain control of the agency that has provided districts billions of dollars for new schools.
However, the most immediate change to the Ohio School Facilities Commission is likely to be a reversal of the Strickland Administration policy that allows school districts to apply prevailing wage requirements and project labor agreements to construction contracts, non-voting member Sen. Gary Cates (R-West Chester) said in a recent interview.
Republican John Kasich’s victory in the recent gubernatorial election means two of the three OSFC voting members will be his cabinet members – Budget Director Tim Keen and Bob Blair the newly appointed director of the Department of Administrative Services. The third member is the state superintendent, which is appointed by the State Board of Education.
Sen. Cates, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said prevailing wage requirements and PLAs – topics that have been subjects of controversy for the commission since Democrats gained control – would almost certainly be on the chopping block early next year.
“We should not mandate or dictate to school districts what they have to do to participate,” he said.
Prior to Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland’s tenure, Republicans prohibited the labor-friendly contract provisions from school construction projects receiving OSFC funding.
The Strickland-led OSFC removed the prohibition on prevailing wage and PLAs, arguing that local school districts should have the ability to determine labor policies that best fit their needs. Democrats generally argue that pro-union contractors maintain a higher quality of workmanship and ensure better wages for local workers.
The administration stresses that the labor policy change was permissive and school districts themselves decide whether to apply the provisions, but Sen. Cates charged it had been used for political ends. “There’s an awful lot of intimidation that can accompany that too,” he said.
Sen. Cates said he would like a Kasich-controlled OSFC to allow more flexibility in building design because the current guidelines, such as minimum square footage limits, discourage many schools from participating in the program. Some parochial schools have built lower-cost facilities that are perfectly functional, yet wouldn’t meet the commission’s stringent requirements, he said.
As the program has crept upwards on the “equity list,” which prioritizes poorer districts, wealthier school systems that need facility upgrades often face difficulty in generating the local matching requirement, he said.
“I would like for the School Facilities Commission to include a more basic option, in terms of participation – maybe allow school buildings that don’t have all the bells and whistles,” he said. “We should be looking at how we reduce cost to both the districts and the state by providing more basic options.”
Another change Sen. Cates would like to see is making OSFC funding available to publicly funded, privately operated charter schools – a change that would likely provoke considerable Democratic opposition.
“Charter schools are public schools and certainly if the reason is to provide adequate facilities to school children, I could see doing that because these are not private entities. They are in fact public schools,” he said. “I think we have to remove discriminatory measures against charter schools simply because they’re not the traditional public schools.”
Charter schools often obtain shuttered school district buildings that are in need of costly renovations, he said. “They can go in and make them functional and with some support there, it seems to me that it would be in the best interest to not have to spend money to tear a building down when it can be used.”
Democrats have long criticized the expenditure of public funds on privately operated schools, saying the entities lack accountability to taxpayers and are linked to major GOP donors. The Strickland Administration has tried to restrict funding for charter schools.
Despite Republicans retaking the Governor’s Office, Sen. Cates said he still sees a need for his proposal to revise the appointment process for the OSFC executive director. The bill, SB 175, would transfer appointing responsibility from commission members to the governor with the advice and consent of the Senate.
“I think we ought to do it regardless of who the governor is because it just removes any sort of impropriety that a move was made for political reasons,” he said. “We want to make sure it’s seen as being a public position and not something that can be viewed as being political.”