Hamlet’s tragic hubris

Hamlet’s tragic hubris

The “optics” are lousy; the reality just might be worse:

The superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools, Anthony Hamlet, and four of his top administrators traveled to Miami and to Cuba over spring break, the guest of a vendor.

At the behest of the school board, the district solicitor is reviewing the trip. The school board president says she plans to conduct her own investigation. It is not the first time Hamlet’s travel spending has raised eyebrows.

A district spokesperson defended the Miami portion of the trip – for which airfare was covered by taxpayers – as a way “to ensure the executive team fully understands the learning happening in the classroom.”

By spending time on the beach, snorkeling and cave-diving, as sources told KDKA-TV, which first reported the story?

And, what, reviewing years of test scores that document long-running abysmal results wouldn’t have given these officials a very clear picture that woefully little learning for far too many Pittsburgh Public Schools students is taking place?

Perhaps they should be trying to understand the learning that is not happening in the classroom.

The trip, the week of April 15, supposedly was meant to be a “professional development exercise,” part of the district’s $73,000 contract with Flying Classroom, a K-8 STEM curriculum and program.

But wait, there’s more:

At the same time, the administrators also took a two-day junket to Cuba. Out-of-country travel must be approved by the full school board. But this jaunt was not.

The district spokesperson’s statement did not mention the Cuba trip, a trip apparently covered by the vendor. Cuba being a great supplier of innovation.

KDKA, again citing sources, says Flying Classroom “is looking to expand its role here next year.”

City Controller Michael Lamb told the station that, in his view, both trips violate the district’s policy of barring gifts or anything of value “from any party doing business with the district.”

Lamb says the trips raise “an obvious kind of quid pro quo question.”

Again, the “optics” of this kind of behavior are not flattering. Public servants at this level should know better, avoiding even the appearance of Lamb’s quid pro quo.

But the appearance clearly is there. Board policy appears to have been violated (including a rule that full reports be filed within 15 days of concluding such trips). And the $73,000-plus question now is if ethics rules were violated.

If they were, the tragedy that Pittsburgh Public Schools has become will only deepen.

Sound public policy demands answers. The best public policy, of course, is to not engage in any behavior that raises these kinds of red flags.

Oh, by the way, when Superintendent Hamlet was asked about the matter following an emergency school board executive session to discuss it, he begged off, as one would expect with the “review/investigation” just getting underway.

But it’s how he said it:

“Right now, I can’t make no comment on that.”


Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).