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Pittsburgh Public Schools superintendent resigns amid ethics controversy, transportation fallout

Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Anthony Hamlet

 Megan Harris / WESA

Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Anthony Hamlet

This is a breaking news story and will be updated.

Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Anthony Hamlet is resigning from the position after a sometimes contentious five academic years at the helm of the state’s second-largest district.

School district solicitor Ira Weiss announced Wednesday that Hamlet tendered his resignation on Friday, effective Oct. 1. It is not yet clear who would replace him. The board said an interim replacement for Hamlet would be selected by Sept. 29, with a national search for a full-time replacement later this year.

Weiss read in a statement from board president Sylvia Wilson that, given a recent report from the Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission faulting Hamlet for problems that include his handling of travel reimbursements, board members are “steadfast in the belief that this outcome is unfortunate, but necessary. Most importantly, this course of action creates an opportunity to remain focused on providing quality education for District students while eliminating unrelated distractions. …The Board would like to thank Dr. Hamlet for his five-plus years of service and wish him well.”

Wilson later told reporters, “This was not a forced action. He chose to do this on his own.” But she declined to elaborate on discussions between Hamlet and the board, saying it was a personnel issue.

Weiss read Hamlet’s letter to the board, which said, “It has been an honor to work under your leadership,” and that he is proud of his accomplishments. But “in light of current circumstances … now is the time for my tenure to come to an end.”

Weiss said Hamlet will depart with the equivalent of one year’s salary and benefits amounting to $399,687. The board will convene on Sept. 14 to formally consider Hamlet’s resignation.

School buses are parked at a depot Thursday, April 9, 2020, in Zelienople, Pa.

Keith Srakocic / AP Photo

School buses are parked at a depot Thursday, April 9, 2020, in Zelienople, Pa.

This morning’s announcement comes shortly after the release of a report by the state Ethics Commission on Aug. 26, just days before the start of the school year. The commission found that he improperly tracked vacation days and made errors in financial disclosure forms. He was directed to forfeit 14 vacation days valued at $12,300 and pay back $8,000, nearly $7,000 to the district.

At the time, Hamlet said the report had been hanging over his head — the investigation had been pending for two years — and that he was vindicated by the findings, as they ascribed the lapses to negligence rather than intent. The school board had remained quiet, calling it a personnel matter and directing all questions to Weiss.

So far, officials have said little outside the morning press conference. Board members did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Wilson told reporters that it was up to Hamlet to make himself available for, but district spokesperson Ebony Pugh did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Hamlet.

Hamlet leaves the position just a year after his contract was renewed through 2025. But he was already a lightning rod for criticism this summer, as the district struggled with the logistics of transporting students once in-person learning resulted. Administrators delayed the start of the school year by a week — an unusual step even as districts across the state and country have struggled with driver shortages.

“I think it’s a sad day,” said James Fogarty, the executive director of A+ Schools. “We as a community need to come together and try to fix whatever has been damaged — especially trust.”

“We’re only in Day 2 of the school year,” he said ruefully.

Fogarty said that the ethics concerns, which were first publicized in 2019, were less of an issue for many families than the district’s COVID response, or lack of it.

“Most of the calls we’ve gotten have been back-to-school chaos,” he said. “Parents were much more concerned about the transportation problems, what’s going to happen if we have a [COVID] outbreak and we don’t seem to have the protocols in place” for learning from home.

“If these other issues hadn’t been present, I don’t know if the ethics report would have led to this.”

Fogarty said responsibility for those problems wasn’t Hamlet’s alone, but shared by other school officials and the school board. Asked whether parents could trust an interim replacement if it was chosen from his administration, he said, “That’s a real concern, but it’s one for the board to figure out. We’ve seen a lot of [staff] leave, and some have been clear the leadership was an issue. But I don’t think we’re bereft of talent. We have a deep bench.”

Criticism of Hamlet had become a political football as well, after a political committee called Black Women For A Better Education formed in response to what its members called the district’s slow and inadequate response to the pandemic. The group urged the board at the time to not renew Hamlet’s contract. When his contract was renewed, the group formed a PAC and backed a full slate of candidates. Three of its candidates won races in the 2020 primary and will be on the ballot this November. Among them is board incumbent Sala Udin, one of two board members who opposed renewing Hamlet’s contract last year.

A rocky start

Before he was hired, Hamlet was criticized for citing data in his resume that were at odds with figures that the Florida state department of education kept.

Hamlet formerly held several positions in the school system of Palm Beach County, Fla. The Palm Beach Post first reported that Hamlet cited incorrect data in his resume.

While Hamlet’s resume noted that a high school at which he was principal moved from an “F” to a “C” during his tenure, the Post found that the school had moved from a “D” to a “C” under his predecessor and remained at a “C” under his tenure. Hamlet also claimed that the graduation rate at a high school at which he was principal grew by 13 percentage points, when the paper found it rose by less than 5 points.

At the time, Hamlet called the discrepancies minor and the debate a distraction.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Hamlet also copied nearly word-for-word a Washington Post 2015 editorial in a section of his resume titled “educational philosophy.”

After a month-long debate, several rallies for and against Hamlet and a private investigation, the board moved forward with hiring Hamlet, saying he was the transformational leader that students needed.

Board members focused much of their praise on Hamlet’s commitment to the “community schools” model, a concept that aims to make school buildings community hubs where social services and providers meet all of a student’s needs by helping them prepare to learn.

The board approved a community schools policy in 2016, giving Hamlet the charge of expanding the model into multiple schools. But board members still say that the model lacks the funding needed to live up to the promise.

Board members tasked Hamlet with reducing the district’s suspension rate, increasing the graduation rate and lessening the achievement gap between Black and white students.

Since Hamlet’s hire, graduation rates have fluctuated slightly but the overall rate remains about 80 percent. State test data show slight growth in African American students testing at a proficient level. But the gains have been modest: In 2018, only 33.8 percent of African American students in the district tested at a proficient level, up from 33.1 in 2016. During the same period, white students increased their proficiency from 64.3 percent to 67.9.

Leading during crisis

Last month Hamlet apologized to families for the undue stress caused by the delayed start to the school year.

The district has faced a bus driver shortage for many years, though administrators say it has been exacerbated by the pandemic. As early as spring 2021, Hamlet had warned that busing would be an issue in the fall.

But while the district said it had been helping bus companies recruit drivers, a majority of garage managers that WESA spoke with this summer said that the district rarely communicated with them. 

The district abandoned an originally planned two-week delay after hearing from frustrated parents, and instead students returned eight days later than planned.

In early August, the district didn’t have transportation for 11,000 students. On the first day of school, Sept. 3, the district reported that number had dipped to 400 students without transportation.

Much of the transportation crisis was solved when the board ratified a contract with the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers. The district and PFT began negotiating the agreement in January 2020. The parties came to an agreement in August after PPS asked for shifts in the start and end times of the school day.

Hamlet said the shifts allowed the district to make efficient use of its drivers by tiering the bus schedule. Drivers can now drive multiple routes with high school starting earlier and elementary schools starting later.

Ethics violations

During the district’s spring break in 2019, Hamlet and a few of the administrators in his executive cabinet took a board-approved trip to Florida to meet with the nonprofit Flying Classroom, which the district had previously contracted. Then the nonprofit took the group on a side trip to Cuba, without approval by the full school board.

The district launched a private investigation into the matter, though the findings were not made public as the board referred to it as a personnel matter. Shortly after, Pittsburgh City Controller Michael Lamb said he received tips of “fraud” related to the superintendent. He filed the complaint with the state Ethics Commission, which last month cited Hamlet for five violations, not all related to the Cuba trip.

Lamb, a staunch critic of Hamlet, said Hamlet should have told the board early on about the violations. David Berardinelli, Hamlet’s attorney, said that until the commission released its findings last week, Hamlet had followed the state’s ethics law, “which we believed said we couldn’t discuss it publicly.”

Lamb said he received a notice on Aug. 20, 2020 that Hamlet had received the commission’s initial findings. The board renewed Hamlet’s contract less than a week later.

“It is time to turn the page and move forward,” Lamb said in a statement shortly after the resignation announcement. “With a renewed focus on improving student success and eliminating the racial achievement gap, there are bright days ahead for the children and families of Pittsburgh Public Schools.”

Chris Potter contributed to this story.

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