December 22, 2014

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Lorain board member: Notification delay helped ensnare district in union dispute

LORAIN — Board of Education members weren’t notified by former Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson and school board attorney Anthony Giardini about the state threatening to cut off funding for the $73 million new high school for more than two years, according to board member Jim Smith.

State taxpayers are paying 81 percent of the cost. The 2011 warning by the Ohio School Facilities Commission was related to a local hiring agreement with unions, known as a Project Labor Agreement.

The agreement, approved by the board in 2010, called for “good faith efforts” to ensure 50 percent of all project workers are from Lorain or Lorain County. The agreement also called for workers to be unionized, and receive prevailing wages and for the establishment of an apprenticeship program for Lorain Schools students to work on the project.

On March 5, Giardini wrote to the Sandusky-based North Central Ohio Building and Construction Council that the district was reluctantly canceling the agreement because it couldn’t afford to build the school without state money. The cancellation prompted the council to sue the board and commission in July.

The case is due back in court Dec. 5. Superintendent Tom Tucker said Thursday he doesn’t know if the suit could delay construction. Bidding had been scheduled to begin in October. The school, at 2600 Ashland Ave., is scheduled to open in August 2016

Atkinson was notified in an April 28, 2011, letter from the commission. Even though the agreement was made before Gov. John Kasich signed an executive order banning agreements involving state taxpayer money, the letter said no waiver would be granted because construction hadn’t begun.

Atkinson quit in 2012 and couldn’t be reached for comment Thursday. It is unclear why there was a nearly two-year gap between Atkinson being informed of the commission’s decision and Giardini informing the union.

Smith in a Monday email to The Chronicle-Telegram, wrote that board members never discussed dropping the agreement or authorized Giardini to tell the union it was being dropped.

“The board only learned of the signed PLA, the OSFC rejection letter and the Giardini letter when its members were informed of the lawsuit,” wrote Smith who has long feuded with Giardini and was highly critical of Atkinson.

Smith said Thursday that if board members had been notified in 2011, a compromise might have been reached with the state and the lawsuit avoided. He said the agreement states it is, “contingent upon its acceptance by the Ohio School Facilities Commission as well as funding and contract approval by the aforementioned OSFC.”

Smith said the wording of Giardini’s letter gave the union ammunition to sue, and Giardini should’ve requested board approval before sending it.

“Why in the world would we ever tell the union we were not going to honor the Project Labor Agreement when the Project Labor Agreement clearly gave the state to do the right to do what they did?” Smith asked. “When we voted on that in 2010, it was clearly stated in the resolution that the Project Labor Agreement for the high school was contingent on the approval of the Ohio School Facilities Commission.”

Board members held a special meeting Thursday — Smith didn’t attend — in which it designated only Tucker to speak for them regarding the lawsuit. Tucker and Giardini said after the meeting that Tucker — who took over in August 2012 — authorized Giardini to notify the union.

“There’s no way I’d ever do that without the superintendent instructing me,” Giardini said.

Contact Evan Goodenow at 329-7129 or egoodenow@chroniclet.com