A nonunion building contractors association that charges tuition for adult apprenticeship classes has found a way to give teenagers a jump-start on skilled construction trades at taxpayer expense: A publicly funded charter school.

The new school on Columbus’ east side reflects continued movement by the lucrative charter-school industry into targeted segments of public education, this one vocational training, once dominated by publicly run vocational or career training schools.

The operators of the new Ohio Construction Academy, the Central Ohio Associated Builders and Contractors Inc., say the program gives students a head start on apprenticeships that can take years to achieve, allowing them to test out of perhaps two years of training.

Ohio Construction Academy has a strong Akron connection in Bryan Williams, who sits on the state school board while lobbying for the builders and contractors, known as ABC. Records show that he has advocated this year for favorable laws, funding and regulation advantageous to his organization at the time he also sits in an elected position on the board, which enacts regulations governing career programs and charter schools.

N. Victor Goodman, a prominent Columbus attorney for a larger group of unionized contractors, is crying foul on several fronts. His Ohio State Building & Construction Trades Council provided apprenticeships in 2012 through $50 million in fees and dues from workers, and complains that the nonunion group is maneuvering to use tax dollars deducted from public school districts to train future workers and to put them on job sites.

The Ohio Construction Academy says on its website that courses are taught in person at its Columbus location and online, and students also will have one day a week of hands-on experience.

The school opened in September expecting 75 students. After a head count in October determined that fewer than 26 students were enrolled, estimated annual state funding was reduced from $375,000 to about $200,000. The money is deducted from the public school districts where the students would otherwise attend. In the case of the Ohio Construction Academy, most came from Columbus city schools, which also operates its own career or vocational school.

Enrollment has settled at about 32, according to school officials.

Students also can receive credits toward a two-year associate’s degree, which is another state-funded program regulated by the state board and Ohio Board of Regents. ABC offers associate’s degree courses through Zane State College in Zanesville and dozens of apprenticeship programs. The school’s administrators say the charter school and the apprenticeship programs are not affiliated, other than their ownership by ABC.

Charter expansion

The Ohio legislature and Gov. John Kasich changed the law regarding vocational programs this year, providing additional career training funds that benefit the lowest-performing charter schools in the state.

“... Some of the state’s highest performing charters are likely to see a reduction in state aid, while those charters deemed providers of technical education will see state funding increases of 10, 15 or even 20 percent,” said Terry Ryan of the Fordham Institute, a charter-school sponsor that has called for state aid to be linked to academic performance.

Goodman raised questions about the nonunion group getting into the charter-school business, which many in Ohio have found to be a lucrative venture. He also questioned ABC’s lobbying for another program that would require local school districts to pay a portion of the wages of high school students who work for construction companies.

Williams responded to Goodman by saying that he is lobbying on behalf of creating jobs for everyone, not just ABC.

“First of all, his criticisms are asinine,” Williams responded. “They are just typical union territorialism.”

Williams asserts that Goodman is defending his clients stranglehold on Ohio’s apprenticeship programs.

“What he’s really saying is we ... want to handpick the people who are allowed into the construction trade, because we want to limit the supply so we can jack up the price,” Williams said. “He is attempting to try to corner the market on commercial construction for union employees.”

Career tech connections

Williams wears two hats as he works the hallways of government.

Public documents show that while serving as an elected member of the state board of education representing the area west of Akron, he is lobbying the legislature, the Board of Regents (which oversees higher education), the Ohio School Facilities Commission, the governor’s office and the state apprenticeship council on behalf of contractors.

He is registered with the state as representing the Associated Builders and Contractors of Ohio and has lobbied government on such issues as preferential treatment for unions and closed-shop union contracts, post-secondary enrollment options, school construction and the state budget.

His January-April lobbying disclosure statement shows that he lobbied the executive side of government — which includes the governor’s office and state agencies — on funding for career technical training, which the new school could be eligible to receive.

On the school board, he chairs the legislative and budget committee, which means he also has contact with the legislature and governor’s office on how money should be used for education. He also sits on four other committees that set accountability and minimum standards for schools, expand educational options, and hire and evaluate the state superintendent.

This year, he lobbied in favor of House Bill 168, which would require the state school board to approve how much state funding should be paid to private construction companies that employ high school students in apprenticeship programs that they cannot get through their local school.

HB 168 is sponsored by right-to-work advocate Rep. Christina Hagan of Alliance and received the endorsement of 24 Republicans — including Kristina Roegner of Hudson and Louis Terhar, husband of the president of the state school board. Three Democrats also endorsed the bill.

HB 168, as drafted, would apply only to students who attend a school that does not offer construction training. Because ABC’s charter school offers a construction-based curriculum, the school’s students wouldn’t qualify for state-funded apprenticeships under HB 168, said Barton Hacker, the head of the charter school and president of ABC of Central Ohio.

Ethical decisions

As a lobbyist for ABC, Williams supports the bill’s mission to increase Ohio’s skilled workforce. As a state board of education member, however, he’s not sure he’ll be able to vote on any regulation of the program should the bill move beyond the House committee where it has been dormant since May.

Goodman sees it all as a conflict.

“They would like House Bill 168 passed so that when they ‘employ’ their pre-apprentices they can get reimbursed by our tax money instead of doing what our contractors do, which is in our collective bargaining agreements,” Goodman said.

Goodman said his clients provide apprenticeship programs through employee fees, not state funds. He said taxpayers should not pay for what his clients provide out-of-pocket.

Lobbying for everyone

Any company can participate in the programs for which Williams and ABC advocate, not just the ABC companies. That’s a distinction that Williams said lessens the potential for conflict as he would inevitably have to approve implementation of the proposed apprenticeship program as a state school board member.

As long as ABC does not voice interest in using state funds for its apprenticeship programs, which fall under Post Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO), and the legislation is not tailored exclusively for ABC, there would be no conflict in his board role, Williams said.

“Conflicts are created when ... a piece of legislation or policy or regulation affects specifically your business interests,” Williams said. “If this was a piece of legislation that set PSEO for ABC apprenticeship programs only: clear conflict. But because this is a statewide policy that has nothing really to do with ABC, and it’s not even clear that ABC would be willing to participate in a PSEO program. So I think we’re a long way away from ever being on that conflict trail.”

Williams also denies Goodman’s assertion that HB 168 is a money-making scheme for ABC’s charter school because he doesn’t foresee management using apprenticeship dollars on top of the basic state aid and anticipated career technical funding.

“I can’t imagine that anyone would allow them to do that...” Williams said.

Lost in the dispute is the students, Hacker said.

“We’re trying to give students options,” Hacker said. “The thing I don’t understand is why are people getting so worked up about a company whose only goal is to introduce the construction trades to students who would otherwise not have that opportunity.”

Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com.