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Invoice provokes spending discussion

| Friday, Nov. 1, 2013, 12:57 p.m.

The usually straightforward act of paying monthly bills ballooned into a heated discussion of how payments are made in the Penn Hills School District.

At the district finance committee's Oct. 21 meeting, the discussion focused on a $10,707 payment to Thom Stecher and Associates for the company's work on the two-day Ninth Grade Academy, held Aug. 6 and 7.

Committee and school-board member Jennifer Burgess-Johnson noted that the Ninth Grade Academy originally was budgeted around $7,000, “so why are we getting an invoice for $10,000?”

Superintendent Thomas Washington said the company had submitted mileage and meal reimbursement that accounted for part of the additional charges.

Washington said he did not consider it unusual for a consultant to request mileage reimbursement.

Committee and board member Carl Barbarino disagreed.

“They should be turning their mileage in to who they work for, not to us,” Barbarino said.

School board member Heather Hoolahan, in attendance at the meeting, said the issue is symptomatic of a problem that has occurred too often for her liking.

“We (as a board) have said over and over again, since February, that no contract over $100 will be executed without the board's preapproval, and here we are again, on Oct. 21, looking at issuing a check for $10,000 that we have not even seen or approved,” Hoolahan said.

Washington noted that there was not a contract in place for the charges. Hoolahan said that was precisely the problem.

“This is the quandary you've put us in, sir, by operating this way,” she told Washington. “It comes up in every executive session.”

Hoolahan has previously threatened to take the issue to the Pennsylvania auditor general, who oversees school audits.

“Do I want to be the person who turns in her own school district, knowing that it will affect the people who live here? No,” she said. “But I'm not going to keep crying wolf.”

Burgess-Johnson said Stecher and Associates charged about $1,500 for mileage.

“Those provisions should be part of a contract that is preapproved by the board,” she said.

Thom Stecher, owner of Malvern, Pa.-based Thom Stecher & Associates, said it is common practice for his consultants to submit mileage to him, which he in turn submits as part of an invoice.

“The invoice includes all details in our effort to be totally transparent,” Stecher wrote in an email to the Progress. “This was agreed to prior to services rendered.

“Our invoice, agreed upon by high school administration, is our contract. There were no concerns expressed until two months after the work was completed.”

As of Oct. 22, Stecher said he still was awaiting payment for the $10,707 invoice, which was dated Aug. 12.

The Ninth Grade Academy, which helps prepare eighth-graders to make the transition to Penn Hills High School, has received praise from a variety of school district officials and parents.

Patrick Varine is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7845 or

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