Hard-up Wilkinsburg School District raises eyebrows with $15K retreat at Nemacolin
By Tom Fontaine
Published: Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013, 10:12 p.m.
Financially troubled Wilkinsburg School District spent about $15,000 to send 13 administrators and consultants on a three-day retreat to one of Western Pennsylvania's poshest resorts.
“Where would people expect Wilkinsburg to go, to a place that serves hamburgers and hot dogs?” asked new district Superintendent Lee V. McFerren.
McFerren described such getaways as the trip to Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in Fayette County as common in education. Administrators from about a dozen Western Pennsylvania districts say they can't afford such luxuries.
“The best we can do is order pizza from Doughboys here in McKees Rocks. But only if we have a coupon,” Sto-Rox Superintendent Frank Dalmas said, adding administrators attend planning sessions in the district office for at least one afternoon before school starts.
McFerren, who took the helm July 1, said it's a long-standing practice in Wilkinsburg to hold administrative retreats outside the district. Other recent sites included Seven Springs Mountain Resort in Somerset and Fayette counties and Oglebay Resort & Conference Center in Wheeling, W.Va., he said.
Board President Karen Payne didn't return a call.
Money for the retreats is budgeted. McFerren said he asked for an assurance when interviewing for the job that he could take administrators on a retreat if hired and board members approved.
In addition to McFerren and his secretary, the building and grounds director, human resources director, business manager, top administrators at the district's four school buildings, pre-kindergarten administrator and three consultants on district education programs attended.
They held business meetings between 9 a.m. and 4 or 5 p.m. for two days, with most group members gathering for dinner. McFerren said rooms ran about $229 a night, on average, while the average dinner cost about $85.
“I think it's important that these retreats are held off-site so we can have people's 100 percent engagement and interest,” McFerren said. “Students can't achieve if we don't explicitly let administrators know what their responsibilities are.”
The Farrell (Mercer County) school board fired McFerren in 2008 amid complaints about his performance as high school principal. A state court later said the board acted improperly. McFerren dropped a federal lawsuit he filed against the district after it rehired him as assistant superintendent.
School leaders and Jim Buckheit, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, said summer planning sessions are crucial. “Should districts do it in venues that are cost-effective and appropriate, given they're spending taxpayer dollars? Absolutely,” Buckheit said.
Buckheit wouldn't comment on Wilkinsburg but said: “We work to advocate for additional funding for education. Sometimes it's a challenge when money isn't used as efficiently as we would like.”
Buckheit's association, along with the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials, reported in June that two-thirds of Pennsylvania districts it surveyed planned to cut instructional programs because of budget constraints.
Wilkinsburg's fiscal problems are worse than most. The state Department of Education placed the district on a financial “watch list” last spring because it borrowed $3 million in January to pay bills. The state noted that Wilkinsburg property owners bear the state's second-highest tax burden. The district has eliminated about 90 jobs over the past three years and it closed an elementary school last year to save $500,000.
Department of Education spokeswoman Tim Eller declined to comment on Wilkinsburg, but said the state allows districts to determine how to handle professional development.
More than a dozen local districts described their policies to the Trib. None went to resorts.
Mt. Lebanon administrators hold a two-day workshop every year, usually in-house, but construction at the high school this summer forced it to use Hoover Elementary one afternoon and PNC Park office space on the other. The district's food service provider, Aramark, which also provides food at PNC Park, provided the space at no cost, said spokeswoman Cissy Bowman.
“We don't do any off-site retreats,” Bethel Park School District spokeswoman Vicki Flotta said, noting it held a one-day retreat for administrators last month in a windowless community room at the district's administration building.
Penn Hills spent about $8,500 to send school board members and a few top administrators to a retreat in Station Square in the past year for what spokeswoman Teresita Kolenchak described as a “team-building exercise.” The retreat is not held annually, she said.
“Retreats were a lot more common back in the heyday, but most districts are really tightening up. Call me cheap, but half the time I don't even claim mileage,” said Monessen Superintendent Linda Marcolini.
Staff writer Matthew Santoni contributed. Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or email@example.com.
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