State wants to take over Harrisburg, Pa., school district

June 3, 2019
The Pennsylvania Department of Education has filed a court petition seeking to have a receiver appointed to oversee Harrisburg schools.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education has gone to court to take over the troubled Harrisburg School District.

The Harrisburg Patriot-News reports that state has asked a judge to appoint a receiver to oversee the school system. The action is not a surprise—Harrisburg’s mayor and other lawmakers have publicly called for a state takeover of the district.

But it had been unclear whether Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration wanted to take over the district; prior state takeovers haven’t ended successfully.

The move comes a week after the Harrisburg district abruptly terminated the contract of its interim human resources director, who had been working for months to straighten out the office.

State auditors are expected this week to deliver a potentially scathing preliminary audit of the district. Administrators and a majority of school board members originally refused to cooperate with the audit.

The receivership petition follows last month's local primary election in which all of the incumbent school board members were defeated. That means a change in board makeup was imminent, but the current “lame duck” school board would remain seated until December.

Education Secretary Pedro Rivera says he is seeking appointment of a receiver because of the district’s failure or “refusal” to carry out a recovery plan. Specifically, he said the district had failed to:

  • Meet or even make meaningful progress toward established targets for student achievement
  • Hire and retain a chief financial officer and qualified business manager
  • Develop a comprehensive plan to reduce the excessive staff absenteeism
  • Exercise appropriate administrative controls by maintaining an accurate staff position file, resulting in, among other things, the district improperly providing health care benefits to former employees at at cost of more than $700,000.

The school district has been under a less restrictive form of state supervision since 2012 with a state-assigned chief recovery officer. School board members recently have not been listening to the chief recovery officer, creating additional conflict.

Harrisburg’s mayor and lawmakers had publicly called for a state takeover of the district in April. Those calls came after the school board voted against cooperating with state auditors, who wanted unfettered remote access to the district’s electronic finance system.

The state audit was prompted by a series of financial scandals in the district, including embezzlement and over-hiring teachers.

About the Author

Mike Kennedy | Senior Editor

Mike Kennedy, senior editor, has written for AS&U on a wide range of educational issues since 1999.

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