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School construction up in air

By John Published: March 20, 2011

By John Higgins
Beacon Journal staff writer

Ohio school districts using state construction funds no longer may require local bidders to pay prevailing union wages and benefits.

The Ohio School Facilities Commission, which oversees the statewide school construction program that shares costs with local districts, shut the door on such agreements at its Feb. 24 meeting.

The new rule has an immediate effect on three local districts: Akron, Barberton and Springfield.

Under Republican Gov. Bob Taft, school projects could not require that contractors pay the prevailing union wage. Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland issued an executive order allowing each district to decide for itself.

Akron entered what's known as a project labor agreement in 2008 with the Tri-County Building and Construction Trades Council to build the new Leggett elementary school.

The agreement required contractors to pay the same prevailing or union-scale wages and benefits as local trade unions receive.

Leggett is complete but three other schools are being built with project labor agreements: the Buchtel combined

junior high/high school project, Hyre Middle School and Schumacher elementary.

Buchtel is about 30 percent complete; Hyre and Schumacher are about 85 percent complete.

Some additional work such as environmental cleanup and demolition of the old buildings is covered under the project labor agreements but has not been bid yet.

That work might be subject to the new restriction. Akron intends to ask the state for an exemption, said Paul Flesher, the district's executive director of facility planning and capital improvement.

Of the 115 active construction projects around the state, 14 have project labor agreements and another 15 require prevailing wage, said Ohio School Facilities Commission spokesman Rick Savors.

Barberton has required prevailing wage on its projects: a new middle school, a new elementary school and a renovation/addition to convert an old middle school into an elementary school. Those projects are all under way.

''All of the significant general trades contracts have already been let,'' said Barberton Treasurer Ryan Pendleton. ''The change will only affect a few contracts that we have yet to bid.''

He said the district was officially informed of the new policy on Friday and the board will have to decide whether to ask for an exemption for the remaining contracts, such as furnishings.

Springfield, however, has not yet bid the work on its new combined junior high/high school.

Superintendent William Stauffer said the district promised a project labor agreement when it asked voters to approve a bond issue last May to build the school.

''We're so blue collar,'' Stauffer said. ''They looked at it as a kind of a stimulus for our community and for those union workers. It was no secret. It was part of the campaign and people knew that we were going to have a [project labor agreement] and we got nearly 55 percent of the vote. It was very popular in that community so we're hoping to honor that [agreement].''

The district hopes to bid out the initial site work in a few weeks with groundbreaking on the $42 million project in May. Construction would begin in September directly in front of the existing high school.

Students would remain in their old school until the new one is completed by the fall of 2013.

The state is covering 25 percent of the basic costs.

Even if the project labor agreement doesn't survive the state's new policy, Springfield will have to pay prevailing wage to use federal stimulus money worth $11 million in interest reductions on its construction bonds, Stauffer said.

He said he will ask the state for an exemption to the new policy because of the promise made to voters.

That could be a tough sell. The new Republican state auditor, David Yost, mentioned Springfield by name in a letter last month to the Ohio School Facilities Commission urging the panel to stop allowing project labor agreements and other restrictions on bidding.

Yost noted that Springfield has been in fiscal emergency since 2007. ''Yet for its most recent construction project, the school is entering into a [project labor agreement] that appears to significantly increase costs,'' Yost wrote.

Yost conceded that available data and research offer conflicting views about the fiscal effects of project labor agreements. ''The difficulty of controlling for the many variables in complex construction projects leads to more questions than empirical conclusions,'' he wrote. ''However, by their very nature, [project labor agreements] distort the price-setting function of the markets.''

John Higgins can be reached at 330-996-3792 or jhiggins@thebeaconjournal.com. Read the education blog at http://education.ohio.com/.

 

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