The Lead

Auditor general calls on Harrisburg School District to act with ‘greater degree of transparency’

By: - April 22, 2019 12:36 pm

Auditor General Eugene DePasquale. (Gov. Tom Wolf/Flickr)

Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale is the latest state official to wade into the fracas plaguing the capital city’s public school district.

On Monday, the state’s top fiscal watchdog said he is “deeply troubled” by the Harrisburg School Board’s refusal to cooperate with auditors working for the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

PennLive’s Christine Vendel reported this month that the troubled district declined to provide records to a firm hired to conduct the audit. District business manager Bilal Hasan said the district had no legal reason to provide the firm with unfettered access to its electronic finance system.

School board director Judd Pittman made a motion at a meeting last week to comply with the audit. It was shot down in a 5-4 vote.

Those actions caught the attention of DePasquale, who urged the board and the district Monday to cooperate with the audit.

“The continuing refusal of district leadership to work with the state’s auditors is unacceptable and sends the exact wrong message to students, parents, and taxpayers,” DePasquale said in a statement. “Given the district’s past financial scandals and ongoing budgetary issues, board members should demonstrate a greater degree of transparency.”

DePasquale added: “The current situation is deeply concerning. I’ll continue to monitor it and, should the stalemate continue, work with the Department of Education to develop a new course of action.”

The Department of Education announced in 2018 that it would audit the capital city’s school district, which has been under a state-mandated recovery plan since 2012.

The district, which has a 49 percent graduation rate at its main high school campus, has generated a steady drumbeat of negative press coverage in the last 18 months for financial mismanagement and staff turnover.

The district confirmed last year that it had filled 37 un-budgeted teaching positions, accidentally paid out benefits to 54 former employees left on its payroll, and filed charges against an administrative employee who embezzled more than $150,000 in district funds.

The district has also had more than 550 employees resign between 2013 and 2018, and saw a record 136 teachers and staff call it quits in the 2017-18 school year.

PennLive reported this month that the Department of Education suspended the flow of grants to the district as it investigated its compliance with federal grant terms.

The principal of its main high school campus was also put on leave amid allegations about improper grading practices.

In an op-ed published in PennLive on Sunday, Pittman said the district has also paid settlements to a former Human Resources manager, a former business manager, and two former principals after they filed wrongful termination suits.

The district also had turnover on the school board and in its highest administrative posts. Last year, Education Secretary Pedro Rivera told Superintendent Sybil Knight-Burney to replace the district’s chief financial officer and business manager with qualified, permanent candidates.

To date, neither position has been filled.

Relations on the nine-member school board have also been fractious. Its members were intensely divided last year on the question of whether or not to renew Knight-Burney’s contract or to search for new candidates for her post — a debate that sometimes led to shouting matches among members.

The board ultimately decided to renew her contract and grant her a performance-based pay raise.

In the past week alone, members of the board have motioned to remove the current board president and suspend the district superintendent. Both were shot down by a majority of the board.

In his letter to the editor, Pittman said the district’s “complete chaos has established failing academic systems for our students.”

Five board members are up for re-election this year, and seven Harrisburg residents have already mounted campaigns to unseat them.

Since all are registered as Democrats, the crowded field will be winnowed down in the May 21 primary election.

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Elizabeth Hardison
Elizabeth Hardison

Elizabeth Hardison covered education policy, election administration, criminal justice and legislative news for the Capital-Star from Jan. 2019-April 2021. You can find her on Twitter @ElizHardison.