Costly consultants: Wilkinsburg cannot afford to waste tax dollars

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Wilkinsburg School District administrators looked pretty bad in September when their decision to spend $15,000 for a staff retreat at the swanky Nemacolin Woodlands Resort was revealed. It turns out that extravagance was a mere trifle in the struggling district’s spending for out-of-town consultants.

Since October 2010, the district has spent $470,206 for the services of two consultants from Louisiana, including $43,931 on airfare, hotels, meals and transportation. Those figures are based on a review by the Post-Gazette’s Mary Niederberger, who received invoices through a Right to Know request.

Bel-Mor Associates, which was to help improve students’ reading and math scores, got its contract with the district without participating in a competitive bid and the firm’s principals — retired New Orleans Public Schools teachers Melba Venison and Katie Rovaris — were reimbursed for their expenses even though such reimbursement apparently isn’t part of their contract with Wilkinsburg.

Although the consultants are administrators with an online university in Lake Charles, La., it is not accredited in the United States. The principals in the firm initially were brought in to give a presentation to Wilkinsburg staffers based on the recommendation of another consultant, who had been a high school student of Ms. Venison’s.

During its first year, the 2010-11 academic year, the firm did not have a contract, but it nonetheless was paid $79,416. Later, Wilkinsburg started paying the firm about $10,000 a month, plus expenses. The district was the firm’s first long-term client; currently, it is Bel-Mor’s only client — none of which is a ringing endorsement.

There also were problems with the district’s arrangement with Bel-Mor because, although it was hired to improve student performance, it was restricted because of terms in the district’s teachers contract. The way the contract was crafted probably meant the district never would be able to get the kind of results it was seeking.

Wilkinsburg has a long history of financial problems, largely the result of a diminishing tax base. It also has a long history of poor performance by its students. Bel-Mor shouldn’t be held responsible for the district’s history.

However, district administrators and school board members who made this agreement and kept it going — including new superintendent Lee McFerren — owe their staffs, students and taxpayers an explanation for spending such a large sum on a deal that could be a poster child for how not to hire consultants.

A district like Wilkinsburg, already on the state’s financial watch list, needs to be a lot more careful in handling money from its taxpayers.

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