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Organizers defend pricey conference for Pennsylvania school board members

| Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013, 12:08 a.m.

Survivors from Somali pirate raids and the Newtown shootings will join a highly regarded urban sociologist and a member of the Olympic “Miracle on Ice” hockey team to motivate more than 800 school board members and administrators gathering this week in Hershey.

School districts pay $379 each for participant to attend the Pennsylvania School Boards Association's conference Tuesday through Friday and up to $700 each in hotel fees — costs organizers say are worth the expense to taxpayers but critics contend are diversions that have little connection to running schools.

“We get it. Captain (Richard) Phillips probably won't have a lot to add to a conversation about education,” said Jim Buckheit, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, a conference co-sponsor.

“But remember who attends this thing. School board members are volunteers, and they're often the people who get beat up the most, so if a human story here or there will help lift their spirits and keep them going, that's a worthy investment,” Buckheit said.

The conference in the Hershey Lodge & Convention Center offers workshops and receptions with exhibits and networking events designed to encourage sharing ideas, said Steve Robinson, PSBA spokesman. Ideally, participants will see something at the annual conference that sparks a solution to issues at home, he said.

The speaker series includes Mike Eruzione, captain of the 1980 Olympic hockey team; Phillips, the subject of an action movie starring Tom Hanks; Pedro Noguera, New York University urban sociologist; G. Terry Madonna, Franklin & Marshall College political science professor; and Kaitlin Roig, a first-grade teacher who survived the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary.

“In terms of frugality, are those speakers giving PSBA members and taxpayers any bang for their buck?” said Leo Knepper, executive director for the Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania. “If we're explaining tax law or talking about Common Core, sure, but I don't see the connection between the school board association and someone who survived a Somali pirate attack.”

Noguera, Madonna and Roig can speak to issues specific to schools, Robinson said, and Eruzione and Phillips will talk about leadership skills.

The speakers help school board members recharge and refocus efforts to make schools run efficiently, he said.

Corporate sponsors and exhibitors offering architecture, curriculum, finance and security services subsidize about $320,000 of the cost of the conference. The PSBA, a non-profit, declined to share details of conference expenses.

Robinson said representatives of at least 60 districts, intermediate units and career and technical centers in Western Pennsylvania planned to attend, including the Allegheny and Midwestern intermediate units and districts representing Allegheny Valley, Baldwin-Whitehall, Highland, North Hills, Mt. Lebanon, West Jefferson Hills, Hempfield and Canon-McMillan.

Taxpayers should question whether that's the best use of time and money, Buckheit said, but often the conferences become a breeding ground for ideas that help superintendents and school board members statewide.

“We're not talking about hostage taking, obviously. There are no pirates in Pennsylvania,” Robinson said. “We're just trying to encourage school board members to strive for the best outcomes they can.”

Megan Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5815 or mharris@tribweb.com.

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