Pittsburgh Public Schools played a role in the city’s Amazon HQ2 bid. Here’s what we know.

Anthony Hamlet, superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools. (Photo by John Hamilton/PublicSource)

Anthony Hamlet, superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools. (Photo by John Hamilton/PublicSource)

As Pittsburgh has vied for Amazon’s second headquarters over the past year, Pittsburgh Public Schools has been a supportive partner of the city and a willing contributor to the bid. Like others involved in the pursuit of Amazon, Superintendent Anthony Hamlet (and, by proxy, the district) also agreed to stay quiet about the bid’s contents by signing a non-disclosure agreement.

Emails and documents obtained by PublicSource through Right-to-Know Law [RTK] requests show Pittsburgh Public Schools [PPS] submitting fact sheets, answering questions and providing other detailed information about the district to the local officials that compiled Pittsburgh’s bid. The emails suggest that the district sent its information to the nonprofit Allegheny Conference on Community Development, whose subsidiary, PGHQ2, served as the vehicle for submitting the region’s bid.

The information PPS contributed to the Amazon bid came in two batches: One in early October when city, county and conference officials were compiling the original bid and another in early February when they were asked to answer several detailed questions from Amazon as part of the finalist round.

The administration building for Pittsburgh Public Schools, located on South Bellefield Avenue in Oakland. (Photo by Kat Procyk/PublicSource)

Perhaps most significantly, PPS Superintendent Anthony Hamlet signed a non-disclosure agreement [NDA] with Amazon that gives the company the “indefinite” right to sue Hamlet and PPS if its “confidential information” is released without prior approval. The NDA, signed in March after Pittsburgh had made Amazon’s list of top-20 finalists, bars Hamlet and all other PPS employees from releasing what Amazon deems “confidential information” for three years. After three years, the NDA automatically renews, though if the NDA is terminated, its provisions stay in place for an additional five years.

In the case that PPS would have to release Amazon’s information via the RTK Law or another superseding statute, PPS is required to notify Amazon so that Amazon can take action to prevent its information from being disclosed. The NDA does not make clear what types of information it covers but defines “confidential information” as “all nonpublic information relating to Amazon or disclosed by Amazon or its affiliates.” If PPS breaches the NDA, the document says, the case will be handled by a court in Washington state.

Citing the NDA he signed, Hamlet largely declined to answer questions about how PPS has contributed to the HQ2 process. He did say the fact sheets were not created specifically for Amazon and that the district creates those as a way to communicate with the public. He also declined to answer questions about the meetings he’s had and how the district has interacted with conference officials.

“You have sufficient information. I can't tell you anything,” he said.

The documents shed light on how the Allegheny Conference has taken control of the information flow about Pittsburgh’s Amazon bid. In fulfilling PublicSource’s RTK requests, PPS also withheld several dozen pages of emails and attachments and sent a log explaining why it was not sending those documents. Several entries indicate that PPS declined to release emails and attachments “at the direction of the conference.” The log entries claim that emails and attachments the Allegheny Conference sent are its property, constitute “confidential proprietary information” and are exempt from disclosure.

Allegheny Conference CEO Stefani Pashman testified in court last month that documents related to Pittsburgh’s Amazon proposal, including the bid itself, aren’t public records because the conference’s PGHQ2 owns them. She testified as part of a case spurred by area media outlets, including PublicSource, that have been requesting documents related to the bid since late October; lawyers for Hearst, the company that owns Pittsburgh news station WTAE, consolidated the cases.  

Among the emails the school district did release to PublicSource, several show school officials, including Hamlet, expressing the need to get permission from the conference before replying to media inquiries.

“Reach out to Stefani Pashman's office at the conference for direction,” Hamlet wrote to Ebony Pugh, his spokeswoman, in response to a May PublicSource inquiry relating to the city’s Amazon bid.

In another email conversation, Regina Holley, the school board president, and Pugh discussed seeking guidance from the conference before responding to an April interview request from WESA regarding Amazon.

“Do you think I should do this?” Holley asked Pugh.

“Hmm. Let me reach out to the folks working on our bid. I'm hesitant to say anything that may be viewed as jeopardizing it,” Pugh replied, noting that she also wanted to reach out to Ira Weiss, the district’s solicitor, for advice. Holley told PublicSource after an Aug. 15 school board meeting that the conference “didn't give us any guidance on anything.”

Amazon's campus in Seattle, Washington, in both the downtown and South Lake Union neighborhoods. Photographed from the roof of Amazon's Port 99 building. (Photo by Jordan Stead, courtesy of Amazon)

Amazon's campus in Seattle, Washington, in both the downtown and South Lake Union neighborhoods. Photographed from the roof of Amazon's Port 99 building. (Photo by Jordan Stead, courtesy of Amazon)

The emails and documents PPS provided to PublicSource give a glimpse into how involved the district has been in the bid:

  • Hamlet met with Kevin Acklin, Mayor Bill Peduto’s former chief of staff, and other members of the Pittsburgh HQ2 team on Sept. 26 for two hours to to discuss how PPS could contribute to the Amazon bid. In June, Hamlet told PublicSource he hasn’t seen the bid and doesn’t know what economic incentives were offered.
  • Later that week, members of Hamlet’s staff sent him an update about information they were compiling about PPS to send to the HQ2 team. The information included up to 12 fact sheets as well as a “high-level overview document about PPS.”
  • In early February, the HQ2 team asked PPS officials to submit more information as it was compiling Pittsburgh’s finalist application. Peduto said in July that Amazon required the finalist cities to fill out a detailed application that included answering “hundreds” of questions. PPS officials were asked to answer 19 of the questions.
  • Several days later, on Feb. 13, Hamlet and Joanna Doven, a communications specialist who works with PPS and formerly served as a spokeswoman for Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, met with Pashman to discuss PPS’ contribution to the finalist application. That contribution included detailed financial information about the district. Prior to the meeting, Hamlet and Doven emailed about what they were expected to share. Hamlet wrote: “They wanted the story of PPS. Why this is the best school district to bring your children. All the great things that are going within the school district... Pittsburgh Promise, Programs, awards, accolades, etc.” Hamlet said the conference also wanted to know about PPS’ strategic plan, its comprehensive plan and its partnerships with the University of Pittsburgh.

Philip Cynar, a spokesman for the conference, declined to answer specific questions about the PPS documents and said  Pashman wasn’t available for an interview. He wrote in a statement that the conference would discuss the bid once Amazon makes a final decision.

“When Amazon reaches its decision, we will — as we have said all along — share the details of Pittsburgh’s proposal, and a complete public vetting of all city and county incentives will be a given, should Amazon say yes to Pittsburgh,” he wrote.

What the documents show

The first batch of documents PPS provided to the HQ2 team were largely promotional fact sheets highlighting various programs and services the district offers its students. One fact sheet detailed the sports available to PPS students while another listed several career and technical education programs the district provides. Other fact sheets listed the district’s special education, gifted and English-as-a-Second-Language programs. Yet another highlighted the district’s free school lunch program for all students.

Susan Chersky, a communications officer for the district, sent eight of the fact sheets to Hamlet for him to review on Sept. 29 and indicated that staff were working on four more fact sheets as well as a “high-level overview document about PPS.” Chersky indicated that PPS’ package of information could be sent to the HQ2 by Oct. 6. Pittsburgh and 237 other cities across the country and Canada would submit their HQ2 bids about two weeks later on Oct. 19.

On Jan. 18, Amazon narrowed the 238 HQ2 submissions to 20 and announced that Pittsburgh had made the cut. Between then and February, Amazon asked its HQ2 finalist cities for additional information, which meant filling out an application with dozens upon dozens of questions, according to Peduto.

According to an email from Keren DeCarlo, the chief executive secretary for PPS, the HQ2 team sent district officials a worksheet to fill out. On Feb. 9, DeCarlo asked officials from Deborah Friss, the director of research, to Jonathan Covel, the director of ESL programs, to answer questions assigned to them by the end of the day.

Some of the information Amazon requested included:

  • “GIS data for the location of all schools within district,” and “a map of each school within 5-mile radius of each proposed real estate site” for Amazon HQ2 — sites that have, so far, been kept confidential;
  • Childhood education programs in the community focused on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics [STEM] initiatives;
  • For PPS’ STEM-focused schools, Amazon requested the capital improvement plans, timetables and financial plans for the schools as well as information about capital investments in public schools over the last decade. Amazon also wanted information on charter and magnet schools;
  • Details on the accelerated learning/honors and Advanced Placement track programs offered;
  • Information on whether PPS offers language immersion or cultural assimilation programs;
  • Amazon also asked PPS to “describe how education programs are funded at the municipal, county and state levels in your community as well as how and where community and private funding can be allocated;”
  • And a description of the “system for assessing performance level of schools at the district level. To whom/where is this information reported?”

While the version of the worksheet included in the emails is blank, some of the officials’ responses to the questions were included in the cache of documents. To answer two questions about how PPS is funded, Ronald Joseph, the district’s chief financial officer, sent hyperlinks to the 2017-18 PPS budget and attached seven pages of detailed financial charts showing where PPS gets its money.

To answer a question about where each public school was in relation to Pittsburgh’s proposed sites, Pam Capretta, the district’s chief operations officer, sent two maps of the district, though she didn’t indicate where the proposed sites for Amazon HQ2 are.

Amazon's Seattle campus. (Photo by Jordan Stead, courtesy of Amazon)

James Fogarty, the executive director of the public education advocacy group A+ Schools, said he liked that Amazon was asking such detailed questions about PPS, including about specific subgroups of students.

“It would be one way for them to make an impact if they saw a clear path to supporting students who have historically not done as well in schools,” he said.

Fogarty sees the district’s engagement with Pittsburgh’s Amazon bid two ways. The district’s support could bode well if Amazon chooses Pittsburgh and the company invests into improving public schools and creating pathways for students to get jobs in tech, he said. But Amazon coming to Pittsburgh could also exacerbate existing problems; Fogarty said he believes there’s just as much potential to fail Pittsburgh’s students as there is to help them.

“What I’m concerned about is, is there a pipeline for our kids to get into the jobs of today?” he said. “If that’s what this conversation is about, then yes, continue to have it.”

J. Dale Shoemaker is PublicSource's government and data reporter. You can reach him at 412-515-0060 or by email at dale@publicsource.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @JDale_Shoemaker. He can be reached securely via PGP: bit.ly/2ig07qL

This story was fact-checked by Mary Niederberger.

  • Robert S

    Gag orders and nondisclosure agreements should be null and void when dealing with public business and public money . Esp business funded by public money. PERIODS. Just like the gag order with the teachers union when the public school teachers we’re going to go on strike . Why that was done still has not been disclosed almost a year later

  • Adm Sir George Cockburn, GCB

    Elected officials and officials holding positions of public trust cannot be permitted to sign NDAs relating to matters within the purview of their official responsibilities. It is simply and utterly unacceptable.