The two non-voting Republican legislative members of the Ohio School Facilities Commission (OSFC) raised vocal objections during Thursday’s meeting after the commission approved a response to an inspector general’s report that accused OSFC. Director Richard Murray of a “pro-union” bias.

Inspector General Tom Charles issued a report earlier in the month saying that Murray and union officials pushed labor agreements on local school districts.  In response, the commission, made up of Office of Budget and Management Director Pari Sabety, Department of Administrative Services Director Hugh Quill, and State Superintendent Deborah Delisle, who had a designee attend the meeting on her behalf, approved a resolution that restated much of the defense given by Sabety on the day the report was released.

The resolution stated that it was ultimately up to school districts whether to use union-friendly project labor agreements (PLA), that the OSFC director should remain neutral on whether districts should adopt a PLA and should not use coercion or threats of retaliation against a district, but that the director can also educate districts on the benefits of a PLA. The resolution also noted that under previous administrations, districts were forbidden from using PLAs under threat of not receiving state funding.

The OSFC also responded to other recommendations of the inspector general’s report dealing with project standards,

proposing an advisory board between the architects and construction managers, the creation of a Bidder Information Center, and a pledge to continue to look for other opportunities for improvement.

Sen. Gary Cates (R-West Chester) and Rep. Kris Jordan (R-Powell) strongly objected to the first part of the resolution. They accused the voting members of the commission of glossing over the strong allegations that Murray, an appointee of Gov.

Ted Strickland, was present as a union representative berated school officials with profanities and racial slurs over the use of union labor.

Jordan said that based on conversations he has had with superintendents and newspaper reports, “I think this deserves a

lot more than a simple resolution, passed by several of the Strickland administration’s department heads dismissing it and saying all problems are behind us and taken care of, because, they’re not.”

Cates said the commission should at least delay adopting the resolution and hold hearings on the inspector general’s report. Sabety, who chairs the commission, said the panel is not an investigatory body. She noted that school district representatives have appeared at previous meetings to voice their concerns, and Murray responded to those concerns at the time.

“We believe that much of what is in the inspector general’s report is open to debate between many people perceiving what was going on,” she said. Referring to the allegation involving the union official, Sabety said the governor and members of the commission disavow that behavior and believe it is inappropriate. “That is stated right here in the resolution itself.”

Sabety said she believes the resolution is an appropriate administrative response to the inspector general’s report. Quill said that he thinks the administration is being responsive to the issue of neutrality.

Cates also suggested during the commission meeting that if the OSFC does not want to take testimony from individuals on the allegations in the inspector general’s report, there are “investigatory bodies” that may do it instead.

After the vote, Cates said that it will ultimately be the decision of Senate President Bill Harris (R-Ashland) on whether the Senate will hold hearings on the report. But he also indicated what he thought on the subject, saying “If the

School Facilities Commission wants to whitewash the allegations, then maybe we’ll get to the bottom of it ourselves.”

“They very clearly are doing the business of the Strickland administration to protect itself,” Cates said. “I feel sorry for the three voting members because they are being told what to do, out of control from the governor’s office, and unfortunately the Strickland administration has chosen to sweep this under the rug here and has no interest in the truth.”

PLAs also played into another discussion during the OSFC meeting as the commission voted to reject the bids for the new schools for the deaf and blind because bids came in at least 40 percent over what had been estimated for the cost.

In his report to the commission, Murray said there were anecdotal comments that contractors did not bid because they knew their bid would exceed the architectural estimate by 10 percent, which would lead to a ejection by the commission. Others inflated their price, Murray said.

He said in response, OSFC officials had a meeting with the construction manager and architect to figure out if there could be additional cost savings. He said the architect is expected to come back within two weeks and the process of bidding the projects will begin again. He said “value added engineering” could yield savings of $5 million to $7 million.

Jordan suggested that the PLA on the project be removed.”I think all options are on the table,” Murray said in response. He said that the project manager indicated fewer subcontractors were interested in the project because of a PLA.

Jordan also commented that it would be much more prudent to remove the PLA, which he said eliminates competition and gives favor to political donors to the governor. Sabety responded that Jordan’s allegations were out of line for the discussion.

Earlier in the day, Jordan announced that he is introducing legislation that would reform the appointment process for the OSFC director. It would establish a gubernatorial appointment process with advise and consent powers given to the Ohio Senate.

“In light of the inspector general’s findings, I believe it is critical that we tackle the core problems within the commission to prevent further wastefulness, conflict and corruption,” Jordan said. “Through this legislation, lawmakers will have essential tools for examining the qualifications and backgrounds of candidates, highlighting any potential conflict of interest.” The bill is similar to Cates’ SB175.

In other actions, the commission approved funds for the Lake Local School District in Wood County to help rebuild a high school destroyed by tornadoes in early June. The commission approved $4.8 million from its emergency assistance fund.

The assistance had been announced on Wednesday by Strickland, Murray and Delisle. (See The Hannah Report, 8/25/10.)

Sabety asked Lake Superintendent Jim Witt how long before the district receives settlement figures from the insurance

companies. He said he hopes to hear more within the next month.