Harrisburg city school district may soon be under state control, as Pa. Education department petitions for receivership

Pennsylvania Department of Education Secretary Pedro Rivera.
Pennsylvania Department of Education Secretary Pedro Rivera is the only member of the charter appeals board whose term has not expired.

This story was updated at 5 p.m. on Monday, June 3 with details from the Department of Education court filings.

The state Department of Education on Monday asked a court to appoint a receiver for Harrisburg city schools, an action that could put the troubled district under state control for the second time in 20 years.

A hearing on the Education department’s petition has been scheduled for 1:30 pm this Friday, June 7 in Courtroom 8 of the Dauphin County Courthouse.

A Dauphin County judge then has seven days to decide whether or not to appoint a receiver to take operational control of the district. The vast majority of Harrisburg’s 6,300 students are minority children from low-income families.

In a 17-page petition that includes almost 400 pages of supporting evidence, Education Secretary Pedro Rivera said the district failed to achieve the goals laid out in its long-term recovery plan, which was approved jointly by the school board and the Department of Education in 2013.

The plan outlined more than 80 initiatives intended to improve the district’s academics and finances by 2018.

But one year after that deadline passed, district administrators and the elected board have sanctioned dubious personnel decisions and failed to improve student performance, Rivera said.

“In doing so, they have failed the District’s students, as well as the broader community, showing a blatant disregard for the academic achievement of students,” the petition reads.

If the courts comply with Rivera’s request, Harrisburg’s receiver would assume all powers of the superintendent and the school board, except for the board’s power to levy taxes.

A Dauphin County judge will have final say on who will fill that role. But Rivera suggested appointing current Chief Recovery Officer Janet Samuels.

Rivera appointed Samuels as Harrisburg’s recovery officer in September 2018 to advise the district as it implemented an updated version of its long-term recovery plan.

Samuels previously served as superintendent of the Norristown Area School district and as an assistant superintendent in the Philadelphia Area School District.

According to the court filings, Samuels has already agreed to conditions in Pennsylvania’s School Code that prevent her from seeking elected office or a job with the district after the receivership period ends.

The Education department’s court filing came days after the district narrowly avoided a teachers’ strike, one week after its superintendent fired its human resources director, and one month after administrators and board members tried to skirt a state audit.

But in the petition, Rivera describes a pattern of financial mismanagement and personnel decisions dating back at least a year.

Rivera said that the district has failed to hire a full-time chief financial officer and a qualified business manager, even though he directed superintendent Sybil Knight-Burney to do so a year ago.

He also condemned the district’s shoddy human resources practices. He said its failure to terminate healthcare benefits for 54 employees “for a substantial period of time” cost the district $700,000.

Administrators also hired 37 teachers at the wrong salary step last year, leading to costly labor grievances from its teachers union, he said.

Rivera said the district acted inconsistently with its recovery plan by letting high-earning administrators collect salaries before its elected board of directors approved their contracts.

The board voted in April to hire local attorney James Ellison as the district’s in-house solicitor, but never made his contract public, Rivera said. He alleged that not even Samuels, the state-appointed recovery officer, knows the terms of Ellison’s employment or compensation.

The board has also failed to approve a new contract for Knight-Burney, even though it voted more than a year ago to offer her another three- to five-year term.

In the petition, Rivera said the district has failed to meet the targets for student test scores and graduation rates that it adopted in the 2013 recovery plan, and failed to curb its high rate of absenteeism among district staff.

Federal data shows that 44 percent of Harrisburg teachers missed more than 10 school days in 2015. Forty-seven percent of its students were considered chronically absent in the same period.

In a Monday statement, the president of Harrisburg’s teacher union blamed the district’s fate on a “long-standing lack of leadership from the district and school board.”

“We are disappointed that it has come to this, but we recognize that the state’s decision to put Harrisburg schools in receivership has become unavoidable,” Harrisburg Education Association president Jodi Barksdale said. “We are hopeful that receivership will finally provide us with the leadership our school district needs to ensure every student gets the education they deserve and has a bright future awaiting them after graduation.”

Barksdale also applauded Samuels’ work with the district, and said the union would look forward to working with her as receiver.

Harrisburg’s elected officials first started calling for receivership this spring, after Knight-Burney’s administration refused to disclose financial data to Education department auditors.

The threat of receivership became a key point in last month’s primary elections for the Harrisburg School Board, where 12 candidates — all Democrats  — vied for five open seats.

City  =voters ousted four incumbents in that election, and sent five-reform minded candidates to November’s general election, where they’ll likely run unopposed.

The winning candidates hoped the election would help the district avoid receivership. Instead, they may find themselves serving on an enfeebled board instead.

Jayne Buchwach, the top vote-getter in the May 21 school board primary, said she was “disheartened” by Monday’s news.

She initially said she’d contest the Department of Education’s petition, but changed her mind Monday afternoon once she’d read the filings.

“[The Department of Education] has no choice but to ask for Receivership,” Buchwach said Monday afternoon. “I would’ve liked to have a chance with a new board, but now I am hoping that the receiver will include us in planning. Dr. Samuels is a terrific [recovery officer] and I’m hoping she will appointed as receiver.”

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