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District's getaway (so not) necessary

About Eric Heyl
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Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Eric Heyl is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. His work appears throughout the week.

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By Eric Heyl

Published: Saturday, Sept. 28, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Quit labeling it a junket.

It wasn't a junket. It was an entirely innocent educator enrichment experience, one that just happened to occur at one of Western Pennsylvania's most luxurious resorts.

Wilkinsburg School District administrators continue to be unfairly pummeled over incurring an innocuous expense in August. They spent the paltry sum of $15,000 to send 13 staffers and a consultant to the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in Fayette County for two nights in August.

What was the cash-strapped district supposed to spend that $15,000 on? Textbooks? C'mon!

Some district residents don't understand. They can't comprehend that there is no way educators can adequately grow professionally unless they occasionally convene in an environment that features two championship golf courses, an internationally acclaimed spa, 14 specialty shops and an impressive collection of restaurants and lounges.

Residents who would prefer the district spend its precious resources on students fail to realize that students aren't that important in the overall public education equation. Sure, they help pass the time between those delicious prix-fixe dinners at Nemacolin's posh Lautrec restaurant, but that hardly makes them essential.

Everyone inexplicably appears to be focused on the fact that Wilkinsburg is on a state Department of Education financial watch list, because the district had to borrow $3 million last spring to pay its bills. Everyone wants to concentrate on why the district had to take out the loan despite the fact it has the highest property tax rate among Allegheny County's 43 school districts.

Like any of that has to do with professional development. C'mon! Can't anyone in Wilkinsburg stay focused on the real issue?

In defending the getaway, new Superintendent Lee V. McFerren treaded carefully, attempting to avoid further angering district residents. Not once, for example, has he noted the annual retreats are as routine as the district's below-average student test scores or its undisputed rank as one of the state's most violent districts.

McFerren also hasn't stated the obvious: The harsh reality is that there is nothing approaching the accommodations of Nemacolin in Wilkinsburg. The community doesn't have championship caliber-greens; it has boarded-up storefronts, frequent gunfire and heroin rings that are the envy of Chicago's South Side.

The only place in Wilkinsburg that comes remotely close to a five-star restaurant there is a KFC. Had the retreat been held there, every attendee's binders would still smell like greasy, fast-food, fried chicken.

That wouldn't have been good for morale.

McFerren has nothing for which to apologize, If Wilkinsburg didn't occasionally treat its upper-level administrators to getaway trips with gifts bags that include T-shirts, gift cards and expensive pens, it would stand the very real risk of losing the leadership team that has made this school system the envy of no other one on the planet.

The district could ill afford that, wouldn't you say?

Eric Heyl is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7857 or




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