State auditor general investigating Pittsburgh school administrators’ Cuba trip
Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale is expanding an audit of the Pittsburgh Public Schools district to include administrators’ travel expenses and what he characterized as “no-bid contracts” totaling $12 million to $14 million.
DePasquale said Tuesday that he’s seeking documentation on travel and contracts based on reports that Superintendent Anthony Hamlet and four administrators traveled to Cuba in April without school board approval and that the district has approved $12 million to $14 million in contracts without seeking bids.
He said his office is auditing the district’s student transportation contracts and the request for additional information would technically fall under the audit.
School District spokeswoman Ebony Pugh said the district is cooperating fully with DePasquale’s request.
“I clearly have a concern with a trip to Cuba that was unauthorized by the board and apparently paid for by a vendor,” DePasquale said. “I’m concerned about the huge dollar amount of the no-bid contracts. The concern that has been raised is that the vendors that are getting the no-bid contracts are then taking the superintendent and other administrators on trips. I do not want to prejudge whether there is anything improper or not, but they are certainly enough to raise red flags.”
Under state law, public agencies are required to seek public bids on contracts totaling $20,600 or more and at least three written or telephone quotations for contracts totaling $11,100 to $20,600. Contracts totaling $11,100 or less require no formal bidding. Agencies are not required to seek bids in an emergency situation, for contracts involving professional services such as consulting work and in cases where only one company can provide a necessary product or service.
Hamlet issued a statement saying the district follows Pennsylvania and federal grant requirements for all contracts and that the term “no-bid” is misleading and indicates the district’s procurement process was inappropriate.
“Regardless of whether a contract is procured via a competitive or non-competitive process, factors are used to evaluate the effectiveness or appropriateness of a service prior to being presented to the board for approval,” he said. “The board hired me based on my expertise with school transformation and my desire to seek out evidence and research-based best practices. Just as it is critical for me to be in the schools meeting with principals, teachers and students, so too is it critical for me to collaborate with education leaders beyond Pittsburgh’s borders. This is how we grow.”
The district intends to hire Lourdes Sanchez Ridge, former Pittsburgh solicitor and an attorney with the Downtown firm of Pietragallo Gordon Alfano Bosick & Raspanti, to look into the Cuba trip and contracts.
According to DePasquale, Hamlet and the administrators traveled to Florida in April to visit The Flying Classroom, a provider of STEM education, and it included a two-day trip to Cuba paid for by the company.
District policy requires board approval for out of country travel. The board president must approve travel within the United States, according to the policy.
Board President Lynda Wrenn did not return a phone call Tuesday.
Ira Weiss, the district’s solicitor, said the board assigned him to investigate the situation, but because of his close contact with the board and administration he decided it could be viewed as a conflict.
“Circumstances of that trip, how it came to be, who paid for it, what activities occurred on the trip and how that relates to STEM education will all be covered by the report,” Weiss said, adding that the investigation would also include professional contracts. “On the face of it, under the school code, these types of contracts in services and software… are not subject to bidding requirements. It’s not accurate to refer to this as being illegal. Now whether it’s the best way to do it is another story, and I’m sure (DePasquale) is going to offer some recommendations on that.”
Bob Bauder is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Bob at 412-765-2312, [email protected] or via Twitter .