It has been 37 days since the state took over Harrisburg school district and only 17 days since Receiver Janet Samuels put her new leadership team in place.
In that time, it has been discovered that financial records are a mess, some teachers lack necessary certifications and clearances and about 60 professional positions are unfilled, said John George, who is heading Samuels’ team.
That is all true as staff members are expected to return to their schools Aug. 19 and students on Aug. 26, Samuels said.
With all that said, George remained optimistic Wednesday as he offered an update on his team’s work to bring the district back to academic and financial success.
“Clearly in the Harrisburg School District, a large majority of the people here are dedicated to the mission of improving the lives of the children,” said George, the district’s financial recovery plan service director. “I think great days are ahead for this school district.”
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George spoke at a Wednesday school board meeting, telling those in attendance that his top priority is delivering quality education to the more than 6,000 students enrolled in district schools.
But to ensure that goal is met, the receivership team must first work to get a handle on the district’s finances, personnel and buildings — all of which have major issues, George said.
On Wednesday, he began his discussion with the budget, explaining that his team has been working diligently to find out exactly what the district’s revenue and expenses are. Right now, that’s a mystery, he said.
“We need to know that down to the dollar to move forward. At this point we do not know that information,” George said.
That is true despite a budget — which included a tax increase — that was prepared by district officials and approved by Samuels earlier this summer.
“Frankly, it’s an illusionary budget,” George said, explaining he has no faith in the numbers.
Line item by line item, George said his team is working to remedy that situation. Still, it could be another 60 to 90 days before an accurate budget is in place, he said after the meeting, adding that an amended, accurate budget eventually will be submitted to the state Department of Education.
Continuing his discussion of finances, George shifted his focus to the district’s federal programs funding, which he said amounts to about $10 million per year. It is unclear how that money was spent over the past five years, he said.
“Going through the records, there are no records,” George said. “The records for federal programs don’t exist.”
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It’s a problem because that funding is earmarked for the district’s students, George said, adding that his team also is working to investigate that issue.
“It’s critical that those dollars be accounted for and be available for service of kids,” he said.
The same scrutiny is being applied to an evaluation of district personnel records, George said.
Some of the district’s current employees lack the necessary certifications and clearances to remain in the roles they have been working in, he said.
There is still time for many of those staff members to secure the proper certifications and clearances, George said. But he also had a warning for those who do not.
“We want to make sure that everyone understands that as we find personnel who do not have proper clearances, they will not be back,” George said. “Anyone who sets foot in that door when the children are present must have all clearance.”
That issue could be exacerbated by the fact that about 60 professional positions remain unfilled heading into the 2019-20 school year. After the meeting, Lori Lillis, the new director of human resources, said she is working to fill those positions.
Payroll validation, accounting for purchases and a “large number” of previous school-board-approved contracts also will be studied as George’s team, under the direction of Samuels, works to bring the district back to academic and financial success, he said.
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“For a district this size with a $150 million budget, it’s going to be a lot of time going through that process,” George said.
And that is in addition to making sure that all buildings are ready for the school year, with necessary cleaning completed and repairs made, George said.
Currently, those buildings all have differing resources available, both in terms of materials and staff, he said. The same is true when it comes to curriculum and assessment plans. That’s going to change, and all buildings will be served equitably, George said.
“What we are finding is there is a variety of curriculums out there, a variety of assessment plans,” he said. “So we need to make sure we have a districtwide cohesive academic plan and assessment plan in place.”
George acknowledged that it might sound like a daunting task, but he also offered assurances that he, Samuels and his team are up to it.
“It sounds as if there are a number of flaws that I’ve mentioned, and I have certainly mentioned several. I have probably not mentioned all of them,” George said. “However, none of these flaws, none of these issues are fatal. These are all fixable. We will fix these things.”
And Samuels continued to preach her message of transparency, offering her own assurances that members of the public will continue to be informed as the recovery plan moves forward.
She encouraged members of the public to give their comments and concerns to elected school board members, suggesting they could act as liaisons between community members and herself and her leadership team.
“Everyone is rolling up their sleeve as we work and strive to serve and support all of you in a very positive and efficient manner,” she said.