Wilkinsburg school board fires consultants

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The Wilkinsburg school board decided unanimously Tuesday to halt all payments to two educational consultants from Louisiana who have been paid more than $500,000 since the 2010-11 school year.

The vote followed a discussion held last week in which board president Ed Donovan and school director Debra Raubenstrauch said they did not believe the district was getting the services that were promised in the contract with Bel-Mor Associates.

At Tuesday's board meeting, Ms. Raubenstrauch said a survey completed by 77 of the district's 120 teachers about Bel-Mor showed that 26 of them said they never participated in any professional development activities with the consultants and 73 said they did not find the consultants to be helpful. Four made positive comments.

After the survey information was released, the board at the recommendation of solicitor Matthew Hoffman went into an executive session about the legal aspects of breaking the district's contract with Bel-Mor.

After returning from the executive session, the board directed business manager Phil Martell to pay all monthly bills except for Bel-Mor's. The contract calls for monthly payments of $10,000 for professional development.

The consultants are Melba Venison and Katie Rovaris, who are the principals in Bel-Mor. Both are retired English teachers from 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.

The consultants were brought to the district by former superintendent Archie Perrin to help train teachers on how to teach students in an urban environment and to help improve academic achievement.

The board approved annual contracts with the consultants, the most recent one this past summer, despite the fact that scores on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams dropped after the consultants came to the district.

In 2011-12, PSSA scores dropped throughout the district, no academic targets were met and no school or grade level made adequate yearly progress.

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 were among the lowest in the county.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported in November the Wilkinsburg district had spent $470,206 from October 2010 through September 2013 on the Bel-Mor consultants. Of that total, $43,931 was for airfare, hotel, meals and transportation for the consultants. Those expenses were covered by the district even though the consulting contract did not provide for such reimbursement.

So far this year, the district has paid $68,000 to Bel-Mor.

Mr. Donovan said it was time "to stop the bleeding," referring to the money being spent on the consultants.

In other business, the board hired a certified high school chemistry teacher. Previously, the district had a certified art teacher teaching chemistry.

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

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