Target 11 Investigates: School district spending

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PITTSBURGH —

Bagpipe lessons, etiquette classes and dancing lessons -- all programs paid for by tax dollars at Pittsburgh Public Schools.  

At Carrick High School, a $25,000 contract has been granted to teach bagpipe lessons to students.  A $3,700 contact was approved to hire a consultant to teach etiquette to students at Peabody High School and $8,700 was approved to the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society to show students how to care for animals.

Target 11's Rick Earle also discovered that tax dollars were also used to pay for dancing, boxing and karate lessons.  

“As a city of Pittsburgh School District taxpayer, do you want to see the school district laying out money for these types of expenditures?” said Eric Montarti, of the Allegheny Institute, a conservative government watchdog.

While some of the programs are paid out of the district’s general fund, others are paid for by state and federal grants.  Either way it’s tax dollars. With many schools tightening budgets, and some district’s now charging students to play sports, critics contend that taxpayers shouldn’t be paying the bill.

“If you have a child that's interested in those usually you go out and seek out a program outside of school and you pay the money to do it,” said Montarti.

But city school board member Mark Brentley defended the contracts, some of which are allocated for specific after school programs.

“In my opinion those are small potatoes. A lot of these things are needed because of the issue of obesity in the city. Not to mention that it keeps our kids active and keeps them involved,” said Brentley.

Brentley, a long-time critic of district spending, also defended a $148,00 contract to a Pittsburgh company to produce promotional videos for the district and to provide other video services.

But he took issue with a $150,000 contract to a Massachusetts company to produce Pittsburgh Educator magazines that are mailed to district parents.

“There are at least three or four companies I’m aware of that could produce that with local flavor,” said Brentley.

Earle reported that a $91,000 contract was also approved to hire a consultant to help the district’s chief of staff write grant proposals.

 “That was a shock to a lot of us.  We have wonderful individuals here on staff who have kept this district running for years with their expertise and their ability to write,” said Brentley.

Target 11 also discovered millions of public and private funds that have gone to consultants to improve student and teacher performance. 

Earle questioned Pittsburgh School District's superintendent.

“You’ve seen the worthwhileness of these consultants?” Earle asked.

“I think some of our consultants have been phenomenal.  Am I going to say every single one of them, No.  One of the things I’ve learned having never worked with the number of consultants as I have since I’ve been here, I can honestly say that managing your consultants is a job in and of itself.   It’s very important that whoever is in charge of working with that consultant makes sure that the work is good and they need to be managed just like an employee would be managed, and so we are getting back and better at that,” said Dr. Linda Lane.

Yet even with all the money paid out to consultants the district last year failed to reach the academic yearly progress benchmarks for the first time in six years. 

“AYP, PSSA scores and graduation rates… one has to wonder what is the district is thinking on these things,” said Montarti.

Earle has learned that some of the programs have been reduced or cut out of the budget entirely, like the contract to produce promotional videos.  That has been eliminated.  The contract to produce magazines has also been cut back.