Pittsburgh school district to review contracting, ethics policies after vendor took Hamlet, administrators to Cuba

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Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Anthony Hamlet at a May 22, 2019 school board meeting. (Photo by Terry Clark/PublicSource)

Now there are three official probes into the propriety of a vendor-paid trip to Cuba taken by Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Anthony Hamlet and four other administrators.

On Wednesday, the Pittsburgh Public Schools board unanimously approved a resolution authorizing solicitor Ira Weiss to conduct a review of district policies relating to procurement, contracts, ethics and conflicts of interest.

This review compounds another prompted by the district and one launched by the state auditor general.

The inquiries come in the wake of media reports about an April trip to Cuba on the tab of an educational technology company called Flying Classrooms.

The company had a one-year $73,000 contract with the district, which had expired at the time of the trip. Board member Sala Udin, City Controller Michael Lamb and state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale have questioned whether the trip violated the state ethics law that prevents district officials from accepting gifts from vendors. The trip was not approved by the school board, a requirement for all trips outside the country.

Weiss hired former City of Pittsburgh solicitor Lourdes Sanchez-Ridge on May 17 to perform an independent investigation of the Cuba trip.

On Monday, DePasquale opened an investigation into travel and contract awards in the Pittsburgh district. DePasquale has asked the district for all travel documents for the past year and details on contracts awarded outside of the public bidding process.

Weiss said at Wednesday’s meeting that bidding is not required for professional service contracts, like the one the district had with Flying Classrooms. The internal review will examine how decisions are made on approval of those contracts.

Udin criticized the lack of board oversight for no-bid contracts. He was new on the board when the January 2018 Flying Classrooms contract was awarded.

Udin also questioned the value programs like Flying Classrooms brought, given the large academic achievement gap in Pittsburgh schools and low proficiency rates among black students.

Udin said he hopes the probes find that the district has done everything in accordance with state and district policy.

“If, however, it is found wrongdoing has taken place, those responsible for wrongdoing must be held to account,” Udin said.

Board member Terry Kennedy said she agreed with Udin.

School member Sylvia Wilson said she supported the district probes but that they could likely find nothing wrong.

”Some people like to point fingers when there is nothing to point fingers at,” Wilson said.

Hamlet said he welcomed the review approved by the board and would cooperate. Hamlet was not available before or after the meeting for comment. Media members were kept behind a roped-off area away from the board and superintendent, a practice that started after reports about the Cuba trip.

KDKA-TV first reported on the Cuba trip on May 9.

Board president Lynda Wrenn approved the airfare for the group of administrators to travel to Florida for professional development. But the group told district officials investigating the issue they did not know they were going to leave the country. Still, they were told bring passports along on the trip.

According to the board resolution approved Wednesday, Weiss will review all district policies “relating to the acquisition of goods and services relating to the complete range of District programs including, but not limited to curriculum materials, staff development, consulting, technical and student assessment.”

The review will focus on the procurement process for district contracts including curriculum materials, staff development, consulting, technical and student assessment and district policies related to the ethics of business-related gifts and entertainment.

The resolution also calls for a review of ethics policies, including those related to gifts and entertainment. The review will also include an update to training for school officials who are required to file financial disclosure forms required by the state Ethics Commission.

Board vice president Kevin Carter said the board should take responsibility for awarding no-bid contracts.

“This contract business is most certainly the responsibility of us board members as well. I don’t think it’s fair to Dr. Hamlet or the administration that they are blamed for recommendations that we could have refused. We accepted these contracts,” Carter said.

Carter apologized to Hamlet “for taking the heat” for contracts the board approved.

Moving forward, Carter said he would like to see a district policy in place that requires a request for proposal process to be used for any contract over a certain dollar amount.

Weiss said he will report back to the board on his review within 45 days.

Mary Niederberger covers education for PublicSource. She can be reached at 412-515-0064 or mary@publicsource.org.

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