About half a year since his entrance into the Harrisburg School District, a key member of the new leadership team has announced that he will be stepping down from his position in January and leaving altogether in September.
Acting Superintendent John George announced that he’d be leaving the role at a Thursday afternoon news conference. He also revealed his plans to retire from the public school system in September, when he’ll become executive director at the nonprofit Pennsylvania Association of Intermediate Units.
“Dr. George is a man of integrity, bright, talented, who was sought out to come to the Harrisburg School District to share his talent and to build a team,” district receiver Janet Samuels said just before George announced his plan to retire.
That doesn’t mean the district will be left without an acting superintendent. Samuels has already approved current Acting Assistant Superintendent Chris Celmer’s promotion to the role. That promotion takes effect Jan. 1.
“We need to all pull together as a community, as a staff to move this district forward,” Celmer said. “We have made some tremendous strides in six months but we have a way to go.”
Celmer also offered assurance that he is up to the challenges.
“We will move this district forward,” he said. “I’m confident that will happen.”
It’s not clear whether the acting assistant superintendent role will be filled, district officials said.
Both George and Celmer entered Harrisburg schools this summer, shortly after Samuels was appointed to her receiver role by court order — an appointment requested by state Education Secretary Pedro Rivera amid years of academic and financial underperformance in the district.
In one of her first moves as receiver, Samuels fired former administrators. That included Superintendent Sybil Knight-Burney and the leadership of the business office and human resources department. She then announced that officials at the Montgomery County Intermediate Unit would be brought in to fill those roles and aid in the recovery.
Among them was George, who previously headed a team that pulled off a similar financial and academic recovery at Reading School District. It’s a recovery that has been described as “miraculous” by the state’s auditor general.
READ MORE: Harrisburg School District can find hope for revival in Reading: 7 lessons
The Montgomery County Intermediate Unit team will remain in place after George’s retirement, per a previously approved three-year contract.
When he was tapped to assist with Harrisburg’s recovery, George also served as executive director of the Montgomery County Intermediate Unit — a position he still holds, serving in dual administrative roles.
A few weeks later, Celmer joined the Harrisburg team, leaving his former role as Reading School District’s assistant superintendent. In July, George said Celmer would be his “right hand” in Harrisburg. Celmer also was a part of Reading’s recovery team.
Both Celmer and George were with the Berks County Intermediate Unit at that time. On Tuesday, Geroge said he viewed Celmer as “one of his top lieutenants” during the Reading recovery effort. That’s why Celmer was the first person George called when he was tapped to help in Harrisburg, he said.
“There’s financial unrest in Harrisburg that’s very similar to what we walked into in Reading in 2014,” Celmer said in July.
Soon after the district entered receivership, Samuels gave George the title of acting superintendent and Celmer the role as acting assistant superintendent.
Since then, Samuels, George and Celmer have been the three pillars of the recovery team, which is working to bring the district back to success. Most notably, that team has been able to create an accurate budget, which they described as a daunting task due to the fact that critical financial records were missing from the central office, apparently removed by someone during the prior administration’s rule.
READ MORE: Harrisburg schools not broke, but financial situation is dire
On Tuesday, George talked about some of the other achievements that have been accomplished, specifically establishing a functioning central office, developing accounting procedures, creating a facilities improvement plan and ensuring that teachers are properly qualified to serve in their roles.
“We have put an end to nepotism,” George said.
“The progress that has been made has been verified,” he continued, referring to positive results of an ongoing audit by the state Auditor General’s Office.
That’s in addition to a recent announcement from Standard & Poor’s Financial Services that the district’s credit rating has been restored, which will be a benefit when district officials look at refinancing debt, George said.
All of those achievements put the infrastructure in place to allow officials to begin focusing more attention on academic improvement, George said, calling the district’s academic leadership team “second to none.”
The ultimate goal, George said, is to turn the district back over to local control. A group of newly elected board members could play a big role in that transition, he said. They replaced former members, who have been blamed for playing a role in the district’s downfall.
“From every indication, the district currently has a properly elected board that has a genuine interest in the education of children rather a perverse self-interest,” George said.
But to transform Harrisburg into a high performing district will take some time, George said.
“It is clear to me that there has been systematic failure at all levels for a very long time. When a district finds itself in such a state of disrepair, it cannot be corrected in just a few months. This recovery will actually take a few years,” he said. “Recovery takes time, and patience is needed.”
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