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PPS Investigating Claims Superintendent And Others Took A Trip Funded By A Vendor

The solicitor for the Pittsburgh Public Schools district is investigating claims made in a KDKA news story that implies district administrators took an all-expenses paid trip to Cuba last month without the board’s approval and in violation of its gifts policy.

Superintendent Anthony Hamlet and four administrators traveled to Miami during spring break, according to solicitor Ira Weiss for an “educational activity.” According to KDKA, the group then flew to Cuba for an expedition with the educational organization, Flying Classroom.

Weiss said to his knowledge, the airfare to Miami was approved by the school board president Lynda Wrenn.

“That was not attributable to the portion of the trip to Cuba,” Weiss said.

According to board policy, any out-of-country travel has to be approved by the full board at a regular meeting.

“Regardless of the reason for an employee’s request for professional development leave at Board expense, professional development leave out of the country and/or trips costing more than $2,000 shall be granted only with the express permission of the Board at a regularly scheduled or special public meeting,” the policy states.

But if the vendor, Flying Classroom, paid for the trip, Weiss said that raises other concerns.

“I’m in the process of reviewing this entire matter to determine what actually occurred here and how this trip was paid for. We’ll be advising the board on all of that when I get all of the information. The board policy clearly provides that employees should not accept gifts from those doing business with the district,” he said.

Weiss said he is taking the claims seriously. He advised school board members to refrain from public comment until the investigation was completed. The school district’s spokesperson did not return requests for comment.

The board unanimously accepted a donation of a Boeing 727 Engine, valued at $490,000, from Flying Classroom at its April 26, 2017 meeting.

It then authorized a one-year contract with Flying Classroom on Jan 24, 2018 for $73,000 which included a professional development plan and on-site coaching for Langley Elementary and Brashear High School.

According to the meeting minutes of the board, the administration requested the curriculum from Flying Classroom in order to “provide and enrich student learning experiences by engaging our students in project-based learning, focused on lessons that promote hands-on, interactive instruction while developing skills.”

According to the board minutes, the curriculum is web-based and allows teachers to access 30 expedition lessons that provide visually engaging experiences “and provide a scaffolded overview of math or science as well as challenge students to engage in engineering design.”

A spokesperson for Flying Classroom did not immediately return requests for comment.

Weiss said he expects to know more about the situation by Monday.

James Fogarty, the executive director of education advocacy group A+ Schools, said in a statement that he urged the public to not rush to judgment.

“It is our expectation that PPS's leadership is acting in accordance with the district's own policy and in the best interest of our students. The school board, elected to oversee the superintendent and public dollars, should conduct a thorough investigation of what occurred and, if necessary, take any and all appropriate corrective action based upon its findings,” he said.