PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Pittsburgh International Airport may be struggling to find passengers, but it’s gotten a huge boost in recent years from the Pittsburgh Public School District, which is raking up tens of thousands dollars every month in domestic and international travel.
A KDKA investigation finds that in 2017 through the month of November, the district spent $306,000 on trips across the country and even over the Atlantic. That’s a staggering $28,000 a month.
KDKA’s Andy Sheehan: “Twenty-eight thousand dollars a month is a lot of money.”
School Board Memeber Sylvia Wilson: “It depends on if you look at what each item is for, and what the purpose of the travel was.”
Board members like Sylvia Wilson say trips to conferences and events are essential for staff training, development and keeping abreast of new trends in education. But board members are some of the most frequent flyers.
Wilson took trips last year to Denver and New Orleans, along with Regina Holley, the school board president, who went to Jacksonville, Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. The year before, she went to Boston, Miami and Seattle.
Even though board policy limits members to two out-of-state trips a year, Holley says she’s exempted because she’s an officer in the organizations holding those conferences.
Sheehan: “Seems excessive?”
Holley: “It really isn’t excessive because for many of the travel documents that we have in the district, it’s not coming out of our money. It’s coming out of grant money.”
The district spent more than $14,000 on Holley’s trips, but about half was underwritten by grants.
But that wasn’t the case when the district sent 15 staff members to a conference in San Jose, Costa Rica, in 2016, at a cost $23,000. Or, in May of last year, when the district sent six staffers to another conference in Dublin, Ireland, at a cost of $11,600.
Sheehan: “Fifteen people in Costa Rica, six people in Dublin.”
Holley: “Well, that’s a federal government grant that they received, and that’s what was told to us.”
Turns out the district was on the hook, and the feds demanded the district reimburse them for those trips.
“Lo and behold after the Dublin trip was approved, we learned that the federal government grants do not cover reimbursement for international trips,” said Terry Kennedy, a school board member.
Kennedy says its time to rein in district travel costs.
“People say we need to put more money in the classroom. Well, how do get money in the classroom? Maybe let’s change the travel budget, decrease it, send fewer people,” she says.
But any change must start at the top. Superintendent Dr. Anthony Hamlet did, by far, the most traveling of all.
Since becoming superintendent in June of 2016, he’s taken trips to Miami, Florida; Oakland, California; Vancouver, British Columbia; Los Angeles, California; New Orleans, Louisiana; Washington, D.C., and three trips to Chicago, Illinois. All at a cost of more than $16,000.
In contrast, in her last two years as superintendent, Hamlet’s predecessor, Dr. Linda Lane, took just four out-of-state trips at a cost of $5,600.