Wilkinsburg educators go to Nemacolin Woodlands Resort

District pays $15,665 for overnight retreat

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The Wilkinsburg School District is in such difficult financial condition that this calendar year it went on the state's financial watch list, took out a $3 million loan, voted to eliminate some teaching and administrative positions this fall and charges the highest property tax rate in Allegheny County.

But it still was able to pay for a two-night professional development retreat for administrators, staying Aug. 13 and 14 at the luxurious Nemacolin Woodlands Resort where the resort tab was $15,665.50 -- which amounted to more than $1,000 per person.

The bill included 13 rooms at $229 plus $20.61 tax per night, meals running as high as $85.50 per person and $1,300 in gift cards, one for each of the 13 guests at $100 each to spend at the resort.

Wilkinsburg school board member Raymond Griffith said retreats for administrators are a tradition in Wilkinsburg.

"I think it probably gives the administrators the opportunity to relax and enjoy themselves a little bit while discussing issues around administration of the school. I wasn't aware, to tell you the truth, that it cost that much. It probably can be done cheaper than that," he said.

In selecting the site this year, Lee McFerren, who became superintendent July 1, said he had a short window and wanted to choose a "place that would perhaps revive some of our administrative staff in the new year, trying to inspire them to come back in the fall."

He said he wanted a "place that was nice and out away from the city and perhaps a place where we could bond and do professional development."

Asked about the $100 gift cards, Mr. McFerren said, "Basically, we had sort of some gift bags as demonstration of appreciation and incentives for our staff to be back and ready to embark upon a new school year."

Phil Martell, director of finance and operations, said not all participants spent their gift cards.

Asked how $85.50 dinners would look to taxpayers, Mr. McFerren said, "To our taxpayers, if we end up increasing our scores this year ... I think taxpayers would be in agreement with it."

The district also paid $455.90 for 25 V-neck T-shirts with red on navy -- the school colors -- that said: "Engaging every child every day for a better tomorrow."

Many of the shirts were distributed at the retreat. Mr. McFerren said some shirts will go to school board members.

The district also paid for 50 engraved flashlight stylus pens for $284.39, some of which were distributed at the retreat.

Expenses at the retreat included four $25 gift cards -- one each for Panera Bread, Auto Bathhouse Car Wash, AMC Theatres and Barnes & Noble -- given during sessions.

There was also a bill for $166.82, counting shipping, for 14 copies of "Secrets of the World Class: Turning Mediocrity into Greatness" by Steve Siebold.

Mr. McFerren said the book was discussed at the retreat. "Basically, it talked about how we perceive ourselves a little bit, about the direction that we take from where we are now. ... "

The 13 attendees included three consultants. Mr. Martell said fees for two of them -- Melba Venison and Katie Rovaris -- were paid as part of the district's contract with Bel Mor Associates, a New Orleans company that has a district contract providing a minimum fee of $110,000 for July 1, 2013, through June 30, 2014.

The contract states that the fee covers more than the retreat, including professional development for teachers, principals, central office staff, superintendent and school board.

The third consultant, Barbara Mehalov, a former Pennsylvania distinguished educator, is a consultant to the district at a per diem rate of $390, subject to the superintendent's scheduling, according to Mr. Martell.

Mr. McFerren said the consultants would have been doing work for the district at that time if there was a retreat or not.

Low-cost retreats

Mr. McFerren said other leaders in other districts in Allegheny County go on retreats as well.

A check of a handful of Allegheny County school districts found administrative retreats, if held at all, typically are not overnight and are in a low-cost location.

Bethel Park had a daylong retreat for building administrators in the district's administration building during the summer.

Quaker Valley administrators participated in a one-day leadership retreat from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Aug. 9 at Penn State Beaver.

Cabinet members in Pittsburgh Public Schools had a retreat June 13 at the Birmingham Foundation at no charge for the space, said spokeswoman Ebony Pugh.

Gateway School District had a three-day retreat for administrators, but there was no overnight lodging. Paid for by grants and donors, the retreat cost $5,258.56, not counting the use of a bus, which was donated. The first day was at the board room, the second at YMCA Camp Kon-O-Kwee and the third at the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh.

Mt. Lebanon has never had an overnight administrative retreat, said spokeswoman Cissy Bowman. The annual two-day administrative workshop to prepare for the upcoming year this year took place the first day at an elementary school library and the second at PNC Park where Aramark, which manages the district's facilities department, provided a room at no cost to the district.

North Hills has no off-site administrative retreats; it holds a day-long administrative retreat each summer in a district conference room.

Jim Buckheit, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, said the Wilkinsburg example was the first he'd heard of a district spending money on an overnight administrative retreat.

Mr. Buckheit said a lot of districts conduct retreats that are not overnight, including some who use PASA offices free but pay for catering lunch.

"They usually look for no-cost, low-cost facilities," Mr. Buckheit said.

Alan Lesgold, dean of the University of Pittsburgh School of Education, said administrative retreats can be productive.

"The real question is Nemacolin vs. that church building on top of Mount Washington," he said.

"The purpose of an administrative retreat is to get people to move away from their day-to-day concerns and think more broadly. If it goes too far toward luxury, it becomes instead a way of rewarding people beyond what can be defended in public," he said.

Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, thinks the concept of a retreat is good but questioned the execution.

"Usually the goal of retreats is to get out of your workaday world location. That tends to create an environment for creative thinking. But you don't have to go to a resort to do it," he said.

Suggesting the district might have found low-cost or no-cost space at a local university, he said, "I suspect they could have done something every bit as effective at a local location for a lot less money."

The Allegheny Intermediate Unit board members and administrators are spending two nights away for professional development this weekend at Nemacolin but paying a lower rate than Wilkinsburg did.

AIU executive director Linda Hippert said the equivalent number of meals, breaks, room rate and tax cost $289 per person per night.

AIU administrators and district superintendents will be going on a two-night professional development retreat -- paid for by the AIU -- in October to another resort, Bedford Springs, at a total cost of $356.40 per night per person.

Ms. Hippert emphasized the professional development and training that will take place at each. Among this weekend's sessions with the board and administrators are software training, a review of accomplishments and goal setting.

"We are all running huge multimillion-dollar businesses where people need to come together some way," Ms. Hippert said.

Not the first

Other Wilkinsburg administrative retreats included a 2012 stay -- most for five nights -- at Cambria Suites Pittsburgh at Consol Energy Center for $13,620.63 plus $984.60 for bills from restaurants outside the hotel.

Andrea Williams, human resources director, who was on that retreat, said the group had breakfast and lunch at the hotel but ate dinner at a variety of locations. She said some who stayed in to work one night ordered pizza and wing dings delivered while others went out.

A Pizza Milano bill of $55.56 -- for two extra large pizzas, 24 wing dings and a large garden salad -- has a time stamp of 5:34 p.m. July 26, 2012. That same night, three people ran up a bill of $129.56, with a time stamp of 7:58 p.m., at McCormick & Schmick's on the South Side, where they dined on Idaho rainbow trout, ultimate mixed grill, parmesan crusted chicken and upside down apple pie.

In June 2011, administrators went on a retreat at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Moon -- most staying for four nights -- for a total of $15,632.92 for lodging, food and audio-visual equipment at the hotel.

Ms. Williams said a payment of $493.77 to the Gateway Clipper for dinner also was part of this retreat.

Wilkinsburg also had an overnight board retreat in 2011 where it paid Cambria Suites $2,572.64.

At the most recent Wilkinsburg administrative retreat at Nemacolin, the district paid for 13 rooms for two nights.

In addition to Mr. McFerren, Mr. Martell and Ms. Williams, the names on the bill included Jeanne Taylor, administrative assistant to the superintendent; Tanya Smith, Turner Elementary School principal; Rosalind Fisher, Kelly Elementary School principal; Candee Hovis, middle school principal; Steve Puskar, high school principal; Michelle Collins, high school guidance counselor; and Michelle Agatston, PreK Counts coordinator for the district.

Also named on the room bill were the three consultants.

Both Ms. Venison and Ms. Rovaris are named as administrators at Duplichain University, an online university with a Louisiana address and phone number that lists its only accreditation as British Educational Affairs.

Ms. Rovaris Monday said she would have to check with the superintendent before making any comment.

In an email, Ms. Venison said she was unavailable to talk on the phone.

Ms. Mehalov, a former administrator in the Frazier School District in Fayette County who was initially assigned to Wilkinsburg in 2008 as one of the state's distinguished educators, said at the 2013 retreat she was involved in a review of data and an update of the district's comprehensive school improvement plan.

"We had already written it. I reported it out. We did comparisons of the plan to make sure they did coincide with the literacy plan so they could be carried out in the district," she said.

Mr. McFerren said breakfast was about 8 a.m., with work beginning at 9 a.m. He said meetings ran until about 4 p.m., after which participants were expected to work on their own action plans.

Mr. McFerren said the sessions include discussion of his vision for the district as the new superintendent, professional development around the district's comprehensive literacy plan and building initiatives. Each person's responsibilities for grants the district has received were made clear.

Wilkinsburg faces serious challenges. Three of its four schools are considered among the lowest achieving in the state. The most recent graduation rate on the state accountability website was 53.49 percent. More than 200 of its 1,000 students are considered homeless. More than 80 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

Nemacolin's charges covered various meals -- all buffets -- including two breakfasts at $26.10 per person, two lunches at $31.50 per person and two dinners at $85.50 per person. There were 12 to 14 people present for each meal.

The charges also included beverages and snacks for breaks, such as two dozen jumbo chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin and peanut butter cookies for $43.20.

Nemacolin does not permit any outside food or drinks.

Also among the other costs were various pieces of audio-visual equipment, such as a screen, cart, power and a 5500 Lumen projector for $450 per day.

Mr. McFerren said he has received positive feedback from participants.

"People really worked hard. They enjoyed the camaraderie and the collaboration and really were inspired to start a new year," he said.

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Education writer Eleanor Chute: echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.


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