Should the state take control of the Harrisburg School District, or should democracy run its course?

By: - April 27, 2019 6:30 am
Harrisburg School Board director Carrie Fowler collects signatures for nomination petitions at Harrisburg's Broad Street Market in March. Seven candidates petitioned to challenge five incumbents, all Democrats, in the May 21 primary. Photo source: Citizens to elect Jayne Buchwach to School Board.

Harrisburg School Board director Carrie Fowler collects signatures for nomination petitions at Harrisburg’s Broad Street Market in March. Seven candidates petitioned to challenge five incumbents, all Democrats, in the May 21 primary race for school board. (Photo courtesy Citizens to elect Jayne Buchwach to School Board)

Editor’s Note: This story was updated on Saturday, April 27 following an announcement that Harrisburg School District officials would comply with a state audit, and to correct the number of incumbents running for school board.

After a tumultuous year that saw a grading scandal, bloated budgets, and a doomed attempt to demand back-pay from teachers, the Harrisburg City School District may soon be under the control of a state-appointed receiver.

Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse, state Rep. Patty Kim, D-Dauphin, and state Sen. John DiSanto, R-Dauphin, have all urged state Education Secretary Pedro Rivera to petition Commonwealth Court to take control of the struggling district, PennLive reported Wednesday.

The calls follow reports that the district refused to comply with a state Department of Education audit and allegedly mismanaged federal grant funds.

Rivera condemned their recent conduct in a statement* issued Friday, the same day district officials announced they would cooperate with auditors. Rivera said his department “will consider all actions allowable by law” to guide the district through a financial recovery plan, but did not acknowledge the calls to put it under state control.

The threat of receivership also comes in the midst of Harrisburg’s crowded municipal election, which many see as a chance to remake the factious and dysfunctional nine-member school board.

Under Pennsylvania’s school recovery law, a court-appointed receiver would assume all the functions of a locally elected school board, except the power to raise and levy taxes, and effectively take charge of the district’s personnel and finances.

Critics of receivership say that the court-appointed official operates with little oversight or public input.

That’s a view shared among some of the candidates for Harrisburg School Board, who hoped to oust four incumbents this year and restore the accountability they say is lacking from the district.

They may find themselves serving on an enfeebled school board instead.

“We’re so close to flipping the board,” school board candidate Jayne Buchwach said. “We’re almost there we can see the finish line, but now we’ll go into receivership.”

Buchwach is a founding member of a citizen-led school reform group called CATCH, or Concerned About the Children of Harrisburg.

The group formed last spring to act as a watchdog for the Harrisburg School Board and the district’s administration, who they say have failed the public with a series of questionable personnel choices and dubious financial decisions.

Despite vocal objections from the public, a majority of the school board voted to approve controversial personnel actions in the past year. That included the reappointment of Superintendent Sybil Knight-Burney last spring, and the hiring of local attorney James Ellison as its solicitor this week.

When they had to fill vacant seats in their own ranks, board members three times declined to appoint a candidate with broad support from the public.

All the while, the district generated a steady drumbeat of controversies, including an accounting error that kept 54 former employees on its healthcare plan, an investigation into improper grading allegations at one of its high schools, rapid teacher turnover, and pitiful student test scores.

Those failures led CATCH to declare war on the sitting school board, where a majority reliably voted to support the controversial administration.

CATCH vowed to flip the board by running its own slate of reform-minded candidates, including Buchwach, Douglas Thompson-Leader, Gerald Welch, and Steven Williams.

While those challengers plan to continue their campaigns, they also know that the upcoming election would be rendered near-meaningless by a state takeover of the school system.

That hasn’t deterred any of the candidates from continuing their campaigns, which they say will effectively end with the May 21 primary, since all declared candidates in the race are Democrats.

Buchwach, who has been a reliable fixture at school board meetings for the last year and half, understands why local officials are calling for the state to take control of the district. Even if all of the board’s incumbents lose in the May primary, new members won’t be sworn in until December.

She fears the lame-duck board could still do “a lot of damage” in the six months after the primary.

Even so, she said she can’t fully support receivership because it limits local control of the school district.

Thompson-Leader and Welch are dubious of receivership for the same reasons.

“It’s not a sure thing that receivership will fix all the ills of the school district,” Welch said. “It’s all very arbitrary if people in the community are not involved in what’s going on.”

Both men plan to continue their campaigns through the May primary, but are disappointed that their power as board members could be diminished. Under a receiver, they’d only have authority over matters of taxation, and little to no say in curriculum or student services.

At the same time, Thompson-Leader understands how receivership could be seen as a quick fix for the many problems plaguing the district, including the recent refusal by administrators to grant Department of Education auditors access to their financial records and alleged mismanagement of federal grant funds.

“Given what’s been happening, I would go into Lincoln [the administration building] and fire everyone,” Thompson-Leader said. “Lack of leadership is the heart of the problem in so many different ways.”

Unlike his competitors, candidate James Thompson thinks the state should petition the courts for receivership as soon as they can. A board veteran who lost a re-election bid in 2017, Thompson pointed out that the district has not yet presented a budget for the 2019-20 school year. He fears its finances and operations aren’t in shape to serve students in the fall.

If the Department of Education does decide to appoint a receiver this year, at least one school board candidate may reconsider his campaign.

Like his fellow candidates, Steven Williams fears that engaged citizens will have no voice in the district under receivership. If the school board is unable to affect any change in the community, he thinks he might be better off serving students in other ways.

“I hope that I would be able to influence the decisions of the receiver so that they take into consideration what is in the best interest of the students,” Williams said. “But if all the powers of the school board transfer to the receiver, it doesn’t matter who is on the board.”

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

*Read Rivera’s full statement below:

“Students are the Department of Education’s top priority, and it is imperative that we address the Harrisburg School District’s financial operations so that students are receiving the education they deserve.

“The recovery plan under law is meant to help financial recovery school districts implement various initiatives to lead them into solvency and position them for academic success. We have worked closely with the chief recovery officer and have added resources, including hiring a qualified audit firm, to solicit information that is needed to create a comprehensive plan for improvement that is tailored for the students and community of the Harrisburg School District.

“The district’s refusal to submit appropriate information to the department, and its apparent failure to meet appropriate obligations and expectations, are unacceptable. The Department of Education will consider all actions allowable by law to draft and implement a recovery plan that the students of Harrisburg School District need and deserve.

“Additionally, it is important to note that the district has already received its April federal funding. As the district cooperates with the department’s requests, we are hopeful that we will be in a position to remove the suspension at some point in the future.”

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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.