West Mifflin School district shelled out $4,000 for trips to Risha's home

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The West Mifflin Area School District spent more than $4,000 to reimburse administrators for their travel to and from the home of former Superintendent Patrick Risha in Rostraver, about 18 miles from the district administration building.

Travel reimbursement amounts were obtained by the Post-Gazette in response to a Right To Know request that was filed with the district.

The information received indicates that $4,024.02 was reimbursed to six central office administrators, with the largest amount going to Philip Martell, the former assistant manager of business affairs, who received $3,265.65 for 170 trips to Mr. Risha's home.

Mr. Martell was employed by West Mifflin from June 21, 2007 until Dec. 16, 2009, when he resigned abruptly a month after Mr. Risha retired. At the time, district solicitor Jack Cambest said Mr. Martell was going into private industry. In July, he was hired by the Wilkinsburg School District as director of federal programs at an annual salary of $70,000.

Expense reports filed by Mr. Martell and the other five administrators indicated the trips were made between July 18, 2007, and Nov. 19, 2009. The trips were made for the delivery of mail and documents and for staff meetings.

The fact that Mr. Risha was working from home was revealed to the public in May 2009 by girls basketball coach Phil Shar, who had been fired from his coaching job at the time. Mr. Shar is now a school director and has been reinstated to the coaching job.

When the revelation was made, then board President Ned Mervos said the board had given Mr. Risha permission to work from home for medical reasons. But Mr. Mervos said he could not reveal the length of time for which Mr. Risha was approved to work from home because of health privacy laws.

Mr. Risha in June 2009 said he was working from home because of weight-related health issues and that he was under a physician's care as he prepared for gastric bypass surgery.

Based on the mileage records it appears that the trips to Mr. Risha's home started eight months into his superintendency, which began in November 2006, and continued until the day before his retirement on Nov. 20, 2009.

Mr. Martell referred questions to his attorney, Charles LoPresti, who said the reason Mr. Martell made numerous trips to Mr. Risha's home is because he was essentially assigned the role of delivery man within the district, taking documents and mail to Mr. Risha at his home on a regular basis.

"When he (Mr. Martell) came on he was the heir apparent to this minor menial job of driving out there every day," Mr. LoPresti said. "If he was required to do this as a condition of his employment, then he was entitled to the mileage payments."

School board President Michael Price said he agrees that employees who were ordered to travel to Mr. Risha's home should be reimbursed for their travel.

But Mr. Price said he had no idea that trips were being made on a regular basis and that staff meetings were being held at Mr. Risha's home.

Mr. Price, who was appointed to the board in January 2009 and won a full term in November 2009, said he does not remember seeing the mileage reimbursements presented separately in the monthly list of bills the board would receive.

Nor did school director John Donis, who was on the board for Mr. Risha's full tenure.

"I didn't realize that so much of the district's business was conducted from his home. I thought most of it was taken care of by phone," Mr. Donis said, adding that he was not aware that Mr. Risha worked from home from July 2007 until his retirement.

"It was always my understanding that it was supposed to be a temporary thing and that he would recover and come back," Mr. Donis said.

Other than Mr. Martell, the employees who received reimbursement for travel to his home were: former public relations director Robyn Tedesco, who billed for 21 trips; supervisor of buildings and grounds Sandy Wells, 10 trips; former district operations supervisor Charles Toth, eight trips; assistant superintendent Dan Castagna, three trips; and director of technology Joel Tachoir, two trips.

Mrs. Tedesco and Mr. Toth were among a handful of administrators who were laid off by the school board in June as part of its effort to approve a budget without a tax increase. They could not be reached for comment.

Dr. Castagna, Ms. Wells and Mr. Tachoir said they submitted mileage reimbursements for meetings they were called to at Mr. Risha's home. Mr. Tachoir said one of his trips was to repair a computer and the other was to attend a staff meeting.

Dr. Castagna and Ms. Wells said they attended staff meetings at Mr. Risha's home that included the central office administrators and some principals. Mileage reimbursements for principals were not immediately available.

Dr. Castagna said the three meetings for which he submitted mileage claims were during the time he was assistant principal at the middle school and principal at Homeville Elementary. He said once he was appointed director of elementary education he was at meetings at Mr. Risha's home several times a week but did not submit for mileage because he said he understood that it was the responsibility of central office administrators to travel to Mr. Risha's home.

"There was no secret about the fact the superintendent was working at home and this was the way business was done in West Mifflin," Dr. Castagna said. "Mr. Risha told me straight out that he had the board's permission to work from home because of his health."

In June 2009 assistant superintendent Janet Sardon in an interview said that she frequently traveled to Mr. Risha's home but that she did not submit any mileage claims for the trips. Records indicate that Dr. Sardon was not paid for any mileage reimbursement to Mr. Risha's home.

Mary Niederberger: mniederberger@post-gazette.com ; 412-851-1512.


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