Director to repay Steel Valley district, pending state decision

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Steel Valley school Director Joe Ducar has agreed to reimburse the district for a payment for lunches he supplied through his private business.

But if the State Ethics Commission finds he was in the right, he wants his money back.

Two school directors balked when a $1,500 bill for lunches provided to parents and students during a summer literacy camp appeared on the district invoice list at the Sept. 18 workshop meeting.

Since then directors have learned that Mr. Ducar's restaurant, Duke's Upper Deck Cafe in Homestead, also billed the district for a $1,700 luncheon provided for staff in August -- a sum that did not appear on the invoice list with the $1,500.

Mr. Ducar agreed to return the $1,500 and not accept the $1,700 while the Ethics Commission looks into the matter.

"I said 'no' to both. I wouldn't take either," he said after other school directors raised concerns about him doing business with the district. "I did agree to give it back, the $1,500."

But he maintains he did nothing wrong and that district officials asked him to provide the meals.

"Being that I'm a business owner and I pay taxes to the Steel Valley School District, I'll be glad to do business with anybody, the school district, anybody," he said. "What's the difference?

"I see nothing wrong with it."

School director Donna Kiefer, who said she implored Superintendent Edward Wehrer to release the second invoice to the board, disagrees.

"I think it's unethical," she said.

The school board will ask the State Ethics Commission for an advisory on the matter -- generally, whether it's appropriate for school directors to do business with the district via their personal enterprises, school Director Mike Terrick said. The commission's results, he added, should help the board decide whether to pay Mr. Ducar the $3,200 for food and drinks he already delivered.

A Pennsylvania School Boards Association staff attorney, Sean Fields, said a provision in the state Ethics Act is meant to prevent school directors from using their position on the board for their economic benefit.

But that rule is complex.

A conflict of interest would not include an action having a "de minimis" or minimal economic impact and the Ethics Act does not explicitly define how much minimal is.

Ultimately, it's up to the Ethics Commission to decide whether individual cases violate the Ethics Act, Mr. Fields said.

Solicitor Donald Fetzko would not comment on the correctness of Mr. Ducar's actions at the Sept. 18 workshop meeting but said then that school directors can engage in contracts with districts of less than $500 -- or engage in business if the company submitted the low bid in a bid-letting process.

Mr. Ducar said he was approached directly by district administration to provide both lunches. He said he's only done business with the district three times: Twice this summer, culminating in the $1,500 invoice, and another time for the $1,700 luncheon provided for staff on one their first days of school before students reported Aug. 23.

He said on other occasions he's provided items for free.

Asked why he failed to mention the $1,700 invoice at the Sept. 18 workshop meeting where the $1,500 was discussed, Mr. Ducar said he thought the criticism from fellow board members was concerning both receipts.

The $1,700 invoice obtained by the Post-Gazette is a guest check from Duke's Upper Deck with the amount scrawled on the receipt: 160 lunches for $10 each, including a sandwich, chips, salad, drink and cookies.

Mr. Terrick said the district could have gotten a better deal, and said after the first invoice was released Mr. Ducar should have first asked the Ethics Commission the protocol for doing business with the district.

Mr. Ducar, a longtime school board member, said this all comes down to politics and that if he were trying to bamboozle someone "that would have happened a long time ago."

Asked if he thought it was appropriate for school directors to do business with the district via their private company, Mr. Wehrer, the superintendent, said: "I think we need to follow state code and state law, and that's what we will do here."

Ms. Kiefer said her goal was not to defame her fellow board member.

"I want to bring it to the board so we don't get slapped with fines," she said, "because we can't afford that kind of stuff."

education - neigh_south

Molly Born: mborn@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1944.


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