Wilkinsburg schools spent $500,000 on consultants over 3 years

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Since the 2010-11 school year, the Wilkinsburg School District has spent nearly a half a million dollars on two educational consultants, flying them from Louisiana for one week a month and paying for hotels and meals while they were in town to provide professional development or plan retreats.

The consulting firm, Bel-Mor Associates, gained public attention by attending a two-day retreat of district administrators in August in Nemacolin Woodlands resort, which cost the district $15,665.50.

The spending on Bel-Mor has continued into this school year -- with a contract calling for a "minimum" of $110,000 -- even though Wilkinsburg, a district of 930 students, is in such financial straits that it borrowed $3 million in the spring to pay its bills and was placed on a financial watch list by the state Department of Education.

The consultants are Melba Venison and Katie Rovaris, both retired English teachers from the New Orleans Public Schools and administrators with Duplichain University, an online university in Lake Charles, La., that is not accredited in the United States. They are principals in Bel-Mor Associates of New Orleans.

Based on invoices and bills the consultants submitted to the district and obtained by the Post-Gazette through a Right to Know request, the district has spent $470,206 from October 2010 through September 2013 on the consulting arrangement. Of the total, $426,274 was for contracted services and $43,931 was for airfare, hotels, meals and transportation.

The district reimbursed the consultants' expenses even though their contract did not have a provision that provided for reimbursement -- a practice that business manager Phil Martell recently tried to stop.

A number of the meals for which the consultants billed the district included district officials such as former superintendent Archie Perrin, current superintendent Lee McFerren and school board President Karen Payne. Also sharing meals with the consultants, on the district's tab, were human resources director Andrea Williams, who has been paid mileage to provide transportation for the consultants while they are in town, and other lower-level administrators.

Ms. Williams said she received permission from Mr. Perrin to eat with the consultants and that she was asked to drive them around in return for mileage reimbursements to save the district money by eliminating the need for a rental car. In the future, Ms. Williams said she will pay for her own meals and will not request mileage for transporting the consultants.

Mr. McFerren, who became superintendent in July, and Mr. Martell, who took over the business office in February, are creating new policies for the district that would prohibit district employees from eating on the district's tab unless they are traveling on district business and require itemized receipts from all consultants or employees whose meals are paid for by the district.

Keeping records

Records received by the Post-Gazette show there are no credentials for Ms. Rovaris or Ms. Venison on file in the district, nor is there any record of requests for proposals for consultants at the time the women were hired by the district or any documentation on why they were chosen.

There are no written limits or regulations on the consultants' expenses in the district records other than an email from Ms. Williams to the consultants in August 2011 stating "Per Mr. Perrin, the school district will pay for the expenses that are above and beyond the $100,000 contract fee" for the 2011-12 contract.

"That is not good practice," said Jim Buckheit, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.

He said the best practice for a school district seeking services such as professional consulting would be to put out a request for proposals outlining the issues that need to be addressed and asking consultants to perform a needs assessment and then a plan for meeting those needs. Then school officials would compare the plans and the prices of those interested in doing the work. Often during the process, school districts can negotiate prices with the vendors.

Mr. Buckheit said districts also should place a written limit on expense spending and there should be a process in writing on how the consultants will be evaluated.

"When you spend that kind of money, you need to have some process to be sure the dollars are being spent efficiently," Mr. Buckheit said.

Many of the meal receipts from the Bel-Mor consultants, from restaurants such as Houlihans, Outback Steakhouse, Bravo Cucino, Red Robin and Minutello's are not itemized, making it impossible to tell how many people ate on the tab and whether alcohol was purchased. State law prohibits school district funds from being used to purchase alcohol.

Ms. Venison and Ms. Rovaris said they are now submitting itemized receipts to the district. They said they do not drink and did not in the past ever purchase alcohol with school district funds. However, there is an April 12 receipt from a Monroeville restaurant that lists three glasses of wine with what appears to be three dinners. There is a notation on the receipt that the $17 for the cost of the wine was deducted from the total turned in to the district.

In addition to shoring up policies on expenses, Mr. McFerren said he outlined for the board in October the possibility of canceling the current contract with Bel-Mor to avoid paying the travel, lodging and meal expenses. But, he said, he believed the district would still owe the consultants the $90,000 remaining due to them on the contract.

Ms. Payne said this week the contract won't be canceled. "I think they are here for this year to finish what they had started," she said.

Cost breakdown

According to emails obtained by the Post-Gazette, the Bel-Mor consultants were brought to the district to help improve its reading and math scores, which are among the lowest in the county and the state.

However, scores have not improved. In 2011-12, scores dropped across the board, no academic targets were met and no school or grade level made adequate yearly progress, known as AYP.

Wilkinsburg's school performance profile, the state's new measure of academic progress used for 2012-13, still shows the district's academic ranking for its elementary schools among the lowest in the county and the state. Middle and high school rankings are expected out next month.

Mr. Perrin, Ms. Venison and Ms. Rovaris said the consultants cannot be held solely responsible for Wilkinsburg's poor test scores because a number of factors contribute to them and because a grievance filed by the teachers union restricted the consultants' access to classrooms.

But teachers union president Mike Evans said result of the grievance did not bar the consultants from the classrooms. He said the grievance was settled by an agreement that consultants who are not certified in Pennsylvania cannot evaluate teachers in terms of their employment. Ms. Venison and Ms. Rovaris do not hold certificates in Pennsylvania.

"They can give recommendations. They could give helpful recommendations. But they can't have anything to do with evaluations," Mr. Evans said.

After the grievance, Mr. Perrin said he continued to have the Bel-Mor consultants come to the district to work with administrators. The consultants said they have given administrators tools to help the teachers improve and that they have worked with teachers in professional development during their non-teaching hours at school.

Mr. Evans, a teacher at Turner Elementary, said the consultants have never worked with him or been in his classroom.

Questions about the consulting arrangement with Bel-Mor arose after news stories in September detailing an administrative retreat the district held at Nemacolin Woodlands which cost $15,665.50.

In addition to district administrators, three consultants, including Ms. Venison and Ms. Rovaris attended. The third consultant was Barbara Mehalov, a former Pennsylvania distinguished educator, who is paid $390 per day to help the district write curriculum and align it to the Common Core standards.

Those news stories marked the first time financial details were released about the long-term consulting arrangement with Bel-Mor.

In an interview, Mr. Perrin, who retired in January but remained acting superintendent until July, said he recommended hiring Bel-Mor after it was brought to Wilkinsburg in October 2010 by another consulting firm, Louisiana-based Channel Zero Group. Channel Zero accompanied nationally known motivational speaker Milton Creagh, who was brought to the district by the local Kiwanis Club.

Channel Zero Group founder Calvin Mackie was a student of Ms. Venison's when he was in high school and familiar with her consulting work.

The session was so successful that Mr. Perrin decided to keep bringing the women back monthly. For the 2010-11 school year, they billed the district each month for their services.

The district has no contract on file for that year, yet it paid Bel-Mor a total of $79,416.45. That total included $6,000 in charges for planning the administrative conference at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Moon and a $20,000 fee to "plan, facilitate and evaluate the five-day administrative retreat." The invoice indicated the $20,000 fee was based on a daily rate of $4,000 per day.

That year, the district paid $15,632.92 for lodging, meals and equipment for the retreat.

The board approved a contract for Bel-Mor's service for the 2011-12 school year, calling for them to receive $100,000 in 10 monthly installments from Aug. 1, 2011, to May 31, 2012. That year, in addition to the $100,000 consulting fee, Ms. Venison and Ms. Rovaris were reimbursed $9,421 for meal, lodging and travel expenses.

But in addition to the contracted amount, the consultants in June were paid $10,000 for administrative retreat planning and reimbursed for $1,487.69 in expenses.

The Bel-Mor contract for 2012-13 calls for payment of $110,000 in 11 installments from July 1, 2012, through May 31, 2013. In addition the district paid $11,487 in expenses for the consultants.

Mr. Perrin said he hired the Bel-Mor consultants in response to a school board recommendation that a long-term professional development plan be put in place. He said he did not seek requests for proposals from other consultants because Ms. Venison and Ms. Rovaris had developed a good relationship with the district's teachers.

Mr. Perrin said he hired Bel-Mor, despite the additional expenses, over local educational consultants because the district had worked with local consultants who he said were not able to move the district forward.

Mr. Buckheit of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators said it is unusual to see smaller school districts hire out-of-town consultants for long-term arrangements in Pennsylvania.

"Some of the larger urban districts that have foundation money are doing that because they need special expertise, but not the other districts," Mr. Buckheit said.

Mr. Perrin said he believed that Bel-Mor's work was impeded by the inability of the consultants to be in the classrooms with the teachers because of the grievance.

And yet, he continued to bring them back to the district, believing they could effect improvements in the classrooms by helping the administrators to help the teachers. He said the board voted to approve all of Bel-Mor's contracts and expenses.

As part of Bel-Mor's work, every administrator in the district had to complete annual "action plans" -- templates on which they were to set goals for improving their performance, a plan for achieving the goals and a way to assess them.

The consultants, whose background is in education, worked on action plans with those outside of the educational realm, including the business, facilities and human resources manager and superintendent.

Ms. Venison and Ms. Rovaris said they don't understand the scrutiny of their contract.

"He [Mr. Perrin] asked us to come in and do some professional development with teachers. We came in and did professional development with teachers. He asked us to come back, and we came back again," Ms. Venison said.

She said Bel-Mor has provided short-term educational consulting in other districts, both in Louisiana and other states. But, Wilkinsburg is the firm's first long-term, and currently sole, client.

Ms. Venison and Ms. Rovaris said their work in Wilkinsburg has been stymied by their inability to be in the classrooms. "The demographics here are the same as in other districts where we worked. But we've had more access in other places," Ms. Venison said.

They also pointed to a resistance to change among some in the district. "You can't expect to have different results if you aren't willing to change," Ms. Venison said.

Mixed opinions

Ms. Payne said despite the grievance, some teachers in the district were so appreciative of the professional guidance they got from Bel-Mor they came to school board meetings to thank the board for bringing them.

"I've always heard positive things about them. If I didn't hear things that were positive, I wouldn't have voted for them. I thought they did a good job," Ms. Payne said. She added that she wasn't aware there were local consultants who could do the same job as Bel-Mor.

Mr. McFerren supported their contract approval because he believed they could help the district.

Mr. Evans said while some of the teachers have found Bel-Mor's work to be beneficial, he questions the price the district paid for it.

"I believe we could find people here in Allegheny County who could do what they are doing and probably a whole lot more for a whole lot less," Mr. Evans said. "I don't know that two teachers from Louisiana would be able to work inside of Pennsylvania and provide what Pennsylvania is asking for."

Mary Niederberger: mniederberger@post-gazette.com; 412-263-1590.

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