PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — A KDKA investigation has revealed new details about a side job for the superintendent of the Pittsburgh Public Schools.
After pouring over three years of board authorizations and financial documents, KDKA wanted to know why the district has spent more than $14 million on dozens of no-bid EDtech contracts since Anthony Hamlet became superintendent of the Pittsburgh Public Schools.
It’s been revealed in Hamlet’s own revised financial disclosure statements that he’s been a paid consultant to a company called ERDI, a Chicago-based company which hosts private meetings between the executives of many of these Edtech companies and ERDI’s roster of paid educators, like Hamlet.
KDKA has also uncovered that under Hamlet, the district has awarded several of ERDI’s clients big- ticket contracts, packages from companies listed as clients on ERDI’s website such as Discovery Education, Panorama, BloomBoard and Performance Matters.
“He’s getting paid by people he’s awarding contracts to. That’s an absolute blatant conflict of interest,” said Michael Lamb, the city controller.
ERDI says as a consultant, educators like Hamlet are paid to advise these tech companies on how to refine and improve their products. But Lamb says the real purpose is to give these executives private access to the educators who are being paid to hear their sales pitch.
“He’s awarding contracts to companies, as many contracts as he can to companies who are contributing to this ERDI, who then is turning around and paying an honorarium to the superintendent,” he said.
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ERDI claims a very specialized niche in the multi-billion dollar Edtech business — bringing together the producers of high-priced curriculum and assessment software packages with the heads of school districts which buy them.
Several times a year, it hosts sessions with educators at luxury hotels and resorts across the country and Edtech executives pay handsomely for the access.
A company brochure, published in The New York Times, shows that vendors can pay $13,000 for one private, three-hour session with educators like Hamlet and up to $66,000 for six-panel discussions.
ERDI confirms in 2017 Hamlet attended two of these conferences — one in New Orleans and another in Baltimore. This past January, Hamlet flew to Newport Beach, Calif., for sessions in a four-star hotel. ERDI also confirms that they’ve retained Hamlet as a paid consultant, and he’s slated to attend another session in Philadelphia next month.
For each trip, ERDI says it picks up the tab for Hamlet’s travel, lodging, meals and entertainment and pays him an additional $2,000. That is in addition to his annual compensation from the district of $216,300.
WATCH: KDKA continues its investigation into Anthony Hamlet’s travel history
Lamb says Hamlet’s participation and compensation violate the school district’s policy forbidding employees from accepting gifts or money from vendors.
“He’s accepting an honorarium which both the state law and the school district prohibit,” Lamb said. “So we have a lot of problems here.”
Hamlet failed to file financial disclosure statements for 2017 and 2018. When we reported that, he filed forms showing no outside income. Then two weeks later, he filed these forms revealing that he was being paid by ERDI all along. Lamb says this late disclosure poses another concern.
“So the board was operating without the information to know that he was being paid by contractors they were awarding contract to,” Lamb said.
Our investigation also found in his three years as superintendent, Hamlet has taken 23 paid trips at a cost to the district of more than $32,000.
Hamlet has tallied 65 days out of the state to places like Denver, Las Vegas, Vancouver and Miami, New Orleans, Chicago, and Los Angeles.
For his part, Hamlet said the trips allow him to represent the district on a national level and for him to learn the cutting-edge trends and best practices in education.
Others question the worth.
“Given the state of education in Pittsburgh with the racial achievement gap and the lack of quality schools in every neighborhood, I would think as superintendent, you would rather stay home instead of travel and take care of your own house,” said Ron Sofo, the former Freedom Area School District Superintendent.
Most all of Hamlet’s paid trips have been to educational conferences, where the superintendent meets with educators and administrators from around the country.
But some are sponsored by the educational technology companies with whom the district now has contracts. In October, Hamlet spoke at a Chicago conference sponsored by the company Rethink Ed. In March, the board approved a $250,000 contract with the company.
And in May, Hamlet hosted a panel discussion at a Chicago conference sponsored by Discovery Education. Earlier this year, the board had approved a $1 million contract with the company and is reviewing another Discovery package worth $4 million more.
Hamlet issued this statement to KDKA:
“As the leader of the second-largest school district in Pennsylvania, I serve as the top advocate and ambassador of Pittsburgh Public Schools locally and nationally – representing the District with various departments and agencies in an official capacity. I am also called to join other organizations and committees on an ad-hoc basis.
As an educational expert, I join other superintendents from across the country as participants in Education Research & Development Institute (ERDI). This participation disclosed on final 2018 and 2019 Statement of Financial Interest forms, allows me to learn and engage with colleagues nationwide. Through this collaboration, the District gains insight into what makes top performing systems work – increasing its ability to drive change to meet the holistic needs of students. Prior to my acceptance of the consultancy (allowable per my contract), my participation was vetted and approved by the District Solicitor. All expenses related to my participation were paid for by ERDI and completed during my personal vacation time.”
Solicitor Ira Weiss issued this statement to KDKA in rebuttal:
“On August 1, 2016, one month into his term as Superintendent, his first superintendency, Dr Anthony Hamlet sought guidance as to whether he could serve as a consulting member of the Education Research & Development Institute[ERDI]. He described it as a professional development growth experience. He told me through an email of that date that ERDI paid all expenses and he would use vacation time.
I responded that based upon his description of the organization, he could participate based upon the following conditions:
a. He receive no compensation
b. He uses vacation time
c. It had to be disclosed on his Statement of Financial Interest
The ERDI website states that consulting members of the Institute receive an honorarium for their appearance at ERDI conferences. That is not consistent with the conditions stated in my August 1, 2016 advice. It also appears ERDI focuses on providing opportunities to providers of goods and services to meet educators as part of their marketing efforts. That is inconsistent with the description provided to me . His participation was not disclosed on the Statements of Financial Interest he filed for the years 2016-2018 on May 31, 2019. It was disclosed for the year 2018 on the revised forms he filed on June 13, 2019.”