Auditor general accuses Pittsburgh schools of ‘runaway travel costs’ amid budget woes, proposed tax hike | TribLIVE.com
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Auditor general accuses Pittsburgh schools of ‘runaway travel costs’ amid budget woes, proposed tax hike

Natasha Lindstrom
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Tribune-Review
Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale
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Anthony Hamlet, superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools, in October 2016 at Google’s Pittsburgh Geek Street Fair held for Pittsburgh schools at Bakery Square in East Liberty.

Superintendent Anthony Hamlet and other top Pittsburgh Public Schools administrators have spent more than $450,000 this year on trips to Las Vegas, Nashville and Los Angeles and other travel-related expenses “without clearly demonstrating any benefit for students,” the state’s top fiscal watchdog said Wednesday.

In a scathing report, Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale accused the district’s leaders of failing “to control runaway travel costs” while confronting a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall and proposing a 2.3 percent tax increase.

“None of the other districts we talked to even come close to spending what Pittsburgh does on administrator and staff travel,” DePasquale said in a statement. “Fiscal oversight by Pittsburgh’s school board appears to be practically nonexistent when it comes to the superintendent’s penchant for travel.”

The district’s travel-related budget has ballooned by 179% in the past three years — “which I find to be outrageous, especially for a district with a nearly $30 million operating deficit,” DePasquale said.

“I recognize that any new spending is cause for concern in a district that is funded by taxpayer dollars,” Hamlet said in a statement responding to DePasquale’s report.

“I also know that an investment in our staff development will pay dividends for years to come in improving the quality of public school education in Pittsburgh,” Hamlet said. “We cannot continue to follow the same practices that have led to stagnation or deficits in student achievement — sometimes, to achieve different results, change is necessary.”

Nearly 200% spike in travel spending

Just five years ago, Pittsburgh Public Schools had the highest fund balance of any district in the state, a prior audit showed.

District officials and Hamlet, who has been superintendent for nearly 3½ years, have defended the hike in travel spending for professional development and training opportunities. They say the trips are intended to improve the quality of education, teachers and leaders across the district’s 54 schools in the city of Pittsburgh and Mt. Oliver. Hamlet, a former administrator in Palm Beach County, Fla., took the helm of Pittsburgh Public Schools in July 2016.

“Simply put, we need more people in our district to be better acquainted with cutting-edge theory and practice,” Hamlet said. “We, therefore, expanded our professional development budget to allow for this type of development across a wider array of staff and administrators.”

DePasquale rebuked the district for spending more than double the amount on such travel as the Philadelphia School District, which has about 10 times as many students.

According to DePasquale, Philadelphia spent less than $220,000 in similar travel expenses in its 2019 budget.

That comes comes out to $1.07 per student in Philadelphia versus $19.42 per student in Pittsburgh, DePasquale said.

Hamlet said that the district’s travel expenses account for 0.06% of the general fund budget.

The superintendent dismissed DePasquale’s comparison to Philadelphia as “clearly an attempt to make statistics work against the district.” Hamlet cited a separate “district survey” that showed in 2018, Philadelphia’s school district spent $924,000 in travel expenses in 2018, compared to about $360,000 spent in 2018 by Pittsburgh Public Schools.

“We take the information we receive in all audits seriously,” Hamlet said in a statement. “We will review the details of the auditor’s findings to use them to get better.”

Board president pledges travel policy changes

DePasquale stressed that it’s the responsibility of the nine-member school board to keep travel spending in check.

“Let me be clear: The board has addressed the superintendent directly — and in a cooperative manner — as it relates to the district’s travel policy,” school board President Lynda Wrenn said in a statement Wednesday night.

Wrenn said that the district’s solicitor and human resources manager have discussed the board’s travel policy with Hamlet and his executive cabinet. Wrenn added that the board does not “want our administrators to be isolated — we want them to be aware of and engaged in best practices.”

“Moving forward, the superintendent has directed new administration policies to be in place that ensure there’s clear employee ‘on-boarding’ of the district’s travel policy,” Wrenn said. She did not elaborate on any specific policy changes.

DePasquale issued the brief report and critical remarks following a five-month review of the district’s finances spurred by Hamlet and fellow administrators taking an unapproved trip to Cuba financed by a former district contractor, The Flying Classroom, a provider of STEM education.

Among the findings and concerns cited by DePasquale:

• The district is keeping a jet engine in a warehouse, with no apparent plans of what to do with it. The Flying Classroom donated the engine, which is valued at about $500,000, according to DePasquale’s report.

District officials told DePasquale that the engine “is too big to fit in any of the district’s schools.”

“What are the district’s plans for that jet engine?” DePasquale said. “If there’s no practical way for students to benefit from it, then perhaps it should be auctioned off to help reduce the district’s huge operating deficit.”

• The district could not provide any documentation related to the Cuba trip. The district’s contract with the company, The Flying Classroom, ended months before the two-day Cuba excursion, which was an offshoot of a professional development trip to Florida. The extra company-paid trip was not approved by the board.

District policy requires board approval for out-of-country travel. The board president must approve travel within the United States.

• Administrators are taking “well beyond their allotted days per year for professional development.” He cited as an example Deputy Superintendent Anthony Anderson, who received $7,500 for travel reimbursements in the 2018-19 school year to do a “continuing education program designed to train individuals to become superintendents.” His employment contract does not specify that the district would pay for monthly training sessions and membership fees for the program, according to DePasquale.

• The auditor general further questions what he has characterized as “no-bid contracts” totaling $12 million to $14 million.

Hamlet said that the district follows Pennsylvania and federal grant requirements for all contracts, dismissing the term “no-bid” as misleading and inaccurate.

“Whether a contract is procured through a competitive or non-competitive process, we still use factors to evaluate the effectiveness of a service before presenting it to the board for approval,” Hamlet said.

The district’s solicitor, Ira Weiss, said last spring that while various contracts related to technology, services and software “are not subject to bidding requirements … whether it’s the best way to do it is another story.”

DePasquale referred his findings to the State Ethics Commission.

The auditor general said that he intends to dig deeper into the district’s “so-called ‘ed-tech’ contracts’” during his office’s next performance audit of Pittsburgh Public Schools, since he had trouble isolating that spending during the initial financial review.

“The best remedy is for my department’s next audit to review every single contract,” DePasquale said.

He did not provide a time frame for when the second audit might conclude.

Hamlet said the best way to address DePasquale’s criticisms is “by proving myself through my ongoing commitment to transforming the Pittsburgh Public Schools.”

RELATED: State auditor general investigating Pittsburgh school administrators’ Cuba trip

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Natasha at 412-380-8514, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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