Wilkinsburg consultants may be out

School board questions value vs. money spent

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The Wilkinsburg school board will vote next week on canceling its contract with two educational consultants from Louisiana who have received nearly $500,000 since 2010-11.

At its meeting Tuesday, the board decided to place a motion on the Jan. 28 legislative agenda directing the business manager to stop paying the consultants immediately and directing the solicitor to seek reimbursement for services that were not provided this year and in past years.

The issue was raised by school board member Debra Raubenstrauch, who said the consulting contract was poorly written and questioned whether the consultants were providing anything of value for the $10,000 a month they are guaranteed in their contract.

Board president Ed Donovan said he did not believe the district is receiving the services it is supposed to be getting under the contract. He said he believes the proposed motion will be approved.

"We feel there was a failure to deliver all of the things they said they would," Mr. Donovan said.

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 could not be reached for comment.

They were brought to the district by former superintendent Archie Perrin to help train teachers on how to better teach students in an urban environment and improve academic achievement. Mr. Perrin retired last year.

When Wilkinsburg High School's school performance profile was released by the state last month, its score of 36.3 out of 100 was the lowest of any school in Allegheny County and the 17th lowest of schools in the state. According to the profile, just 13 percent of students scored proficient or advanced in algebra, 18 percent in literature and 3 percent in biology.

The academic scores for the elementary and middle schools are among the lowest in the county.

School board member Richard Bradford said the board should consider whether the district mismanaged the consultants.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported in November that the district had spent $470,206 from October 2010 through September 2013 on the Bel-Mor consulting arrangement, a total that was discerned from the review of invoices and bills the consultants submitted to the district and obtained by the Post-Gazette through a Right To Know request.

Of the total, $426,274 was for contracted services and $43,931 was for airfare, hotel, meals and transportation for the consultants. The district reimbursed the consultants for their expenses even though their contract did not have a provision that provided for reimbursement.

A number of the meals for which the consultants billed the district included district officials such Mr. Perrin, current superintendent Lee McFerren and former board president Karen Payne. Also sharing meals was district human resources director Andrea Williams, who was paid mileage to drive the consultants around when they were in town.

So far this year the district has paid the Bel-Mor consultants $68,000. Ms. Raubenstrauch said she wanted to "stop the bleeding" and free up the $10,000 per month the district is paying them for other services such as information technology.

The district currently has no IT director. The board hopes to hire an IT firm on an interim basis in order to get grades processed and federal reports filed.

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

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