The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Local News

October 19, 2013

School tax dollars paying celebrities

HARRISBURG — The Pennsylvania School Boards Association conference featured a pair of costly celebrity keynote speeches, but the organization refused to disclose exactly how much it paid to Capt. Richard Phillips and Michael Eruzione.

Eruzione was the star of the U.S. men’s hockey team that beat the Soviets in the 1980 Winter Olympics. Phillips’ misadventure with pirates inspired a new movie starring Tom Hanks.

About 800 school board directors from 300 school districts across Pennsylvania paid as much as $375 per person to attend the three-day conference sponsored by the school board association in Hershey.

Phillips and Eruzione each command in excess of $20,000 per speaking engagement, according to estimates advertised on websites of booking promoters.

While the association declined to describe how much it paid the keynote speakers, the PSBA did detail its revenue and expenses in forms it is required to submit to the IRS. The PSBA spent $2.5 million in 2012 putting on conferences like the one held this week, according to the IRS documents.

While only two-thirds of the school districts in the state were represented at the conference, almost all may share a portion of the cost of the event.

The PSBA brings in about $4.25 million in dues payments each year from Pennsylvania’s 500 public school districts. Local school officials contacted Friday said that they pay dues for each administrator and board member who belongs to the PSBA, so the bills can easily run about $10,000 per district.

A portion of that money is diverted to help cover the costs of conferences like the one held this week, PSBA officials said. Association officials consider the conference a “benefit of membership” so the dues dollars used to try to keep down the cost for those who attend the event, said Craig Erdman, assistant executive director for administrative services for the school boards association.

Private organizations are not required to follow the state’s right to know law, said Terry Mutchler, executive director of the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records. But because of the many ways the school boards’ group interacts with public school districts and gets funding from taxpayers, the Office of Open Records has received numerous informal questions about the PSBA, she said.

Mutchler said that no one has asked her office to make a formal legal analysis of whether the school boards’ group should be required to comply with state open records law. Mutchler added that she would “welcome” the opportunity to weigh the question.

Whether the organization is obligated to comply with open records law is only part of the question.

“Because of all the concerns about funding of education, now more than ever, it is incumbent upon groups like the PSBA to answer questions about how they are spending tax dollars,” Mutchler saida.

Officials at the school board association and school directors who attended the event defended the conference and the decision to include celebrity speakers.

“In addition to the general session speakers, we have nearly 30 breakouts and several larger feature workshops,” PSBA spokesman Steve Robinson. “Training, education and motivation are critical for school directors. Strong governance has been shown to improve student achievement. “

Lewisburg school board member Kathy Swope said the conference provides real-world strategies for improving the way schools educate students.

Thursday, she spoke just after leaving a session on the importance of helping students make thoughtful decisions about their future career paths earlier in their academic lives.

“Professional development for school directors is just as important as professional development for teachers,” Swope said.

Swope liked Eruzione’s speech, too. His message of working as a team to overcome daunting odds is relevant to the way a school board must learn to “check your ego at the door” in order to get things done.

As a member of the PSBA board, Swope got to attend the conference for free.

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