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Fight over schools project highlights divide 

Questions over who got work on a hugely expensive project to overhaul Rochester's aging school buildings have culminated in a lawsuit that some say threatens the whole deal. Politics, longstanding grudges, and racial tensions add fuel to the fire.

The first phase of the $1.3 billion project surpassed hiring goals for women and people of color. Many City of Rochester residents also worked on the project, which is critical, given the high rate of unemployment for people of color in some areas of the city.

But Allen Williams, the head of the board that oversees the project, says that while the diversity hiring goals were met, there are questions about how many apprentices, particularly minority apprentices, got work. That's key, because apprenticeships are a ticket to a solid career and a middle-class lifestyle, he says.

That's why he voted against including a Project Labor Agreement for the project's second phase, he says. Such agreements govern terms and conditions of employment on a specific job.

Three other members of the Facilities Modernization Program board joined Williams and the agreement was rejected 4-3.

The vote angered and confused the construction unions, who say that the community should celebrate the diversity achievements in the Facilities Modernization Program's first phase, which were attained under a PLA.

"FMP is the single most successful hiring program for minorities and women in Rochester's history," says Aaron Hilger, president of the Builders Exchange of Rochester. "A number of us in the industry are completely poleaxed or confused about why we're having all of this controversy. Every single thing that the building trades said they were going to do, they did."

The unions and the oversight board's former chair, Tom Richards – Rochester's former mayor – dispute Williams' claims about the apprentices. Hilger says that 200 to 400 apprentices worked on the first phase and that Williams and Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren were just looking for an excuse to kill the PLA. The unions are now suing the board. The case will be heard in State Supreme Court on Wednesday, September 7.

But there's a lot more going on here.

Williams and two of the other board members who voted against the PLA work for the City of Rochester and are viewed by many to be loyal to Warren. Warren did not get the construction unions' support during her election bid, and many of her critics, including at least one member of the FMP board, say that she orchestrated the PLA vote as payback. Williams denies that.

Warren appoints only three of the seven members of the FMP board, and a fourth is a joint appointment by her and the Rochester schools superintendent. The mayor couldn't swing a vote even if she wanted to, Williams says. And Warren did not tell him how to vote on the PLA, he says.

Prior to the PLA vote, the board voted to remove Tom Richards as board chair, replacing him with Williams. Critics say that Warren pulled the strings there, too, as revenge on a former political rival.

Richards and Warren faced off in a tough 2013 Democratic primary for mayor. The race illustrated the deep divide in Rochester: an affluent white man from the corporate world who was seen by supporters as a steady guiding hand against a young black woman concerned about the plight of many people of color in the city.

Warren scored an unexpected but decisive victory in the primary. But some of Richards' backers broke custom and instead of supporting Warren in the general election, continued to push the incumbent mayor. The fallout left a deep split in the local Democratic Party and continues to weaken the party today.

It's hard to look at the FMP fight and not see shrapnel from the 2013 fracture. Some of the white members of City Council, along with Latina Jackie Ortiz, want answers about the PLA vote. They want to know why the oversight board rejected the PLA and, especially, how the board will make sure that women and people of color get their fair share of jobs in FMP's second round without a PLA.

One of the Council members is Molly Clifford, a staunch Richards supporter and Democratic insider who helped lead the 2013 campaign to keep Richards in office after Warren won the primary.

The African-American members of City Council have been largely silent on the PLA issue, except for Council member Adam McFadden, who says that Council has no authority in the matter and lambasted his colleagues for getting involved.

With $1.3 billion at stake, pledges that the overhaul project would be free of politics were probably naïve. But the racial split is particularly discouraging.

What happens next depends on the outcome of the September 7 court hearing. The dispute hasn't caused serious delays yet, but it could, depending on how long the ruling takes, whether there's an appeal, and other factors.

Williams says that he is concerned that the State Education Department might get involved, too, since the department has final say over the construction plans. That could cause delays, he says.

The construction unions say that losing the PLA will add about $14 million to FMP's $435 million second phase. Under PLA's, the many different unions working on a project operate under the same collective bargaining agreement, which saves money, the unions say, and PLA's also prevent strikes.

Williams says that the $14 million number is "soft."

And State Senator Joe Robach has entered the picture. He wrote to the FMP board, asking members to reinstate the PLA. The state funds the project, so Robach's concerns could theoretically become an issue. But Williams says that most of the money for the project is already set aside and it's not clear that Robach or other state officials could disrupt things at this point.

The irony is that both sides in this dispute say that they want the same thing: to make sure that as many women, people of color, and city residents get jobs on the FMP as possible and that those jobs lead to careers and a path out of poverty. Despite agreement on the overall objective, it seems unlikely they will come together anytime soon.

Williams says that you can reach those goals without a PLA because state law requires a diverse workforce and that you can vet each potential contractor with diversity in mind. But the unions say that after years of trying and failing to achieve diversity in their ranks, PLA's are the only sure path they've found to that goal.

"We made the goals high enough where we had to do something to make a difference," says David Young, president of the Rochester Building and Trades Council. "We're trying to help the entire community. It helps us, too; we're part of the community."

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