The state Department of Education on Monday filed a request with the Court to appoint a receiver to take over the troubled Harrisburg School District.
The state filed the petition in the Court of Common Pleas and recommended the district’s current Chief Recovery Officer Janet Samuels be appointed as receiver. The judge, however, will have the final word on who is appointed.
The drastic action wasn’t a complete surprise as Harrisburg’s mayor and lawmakers previously had 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, as prior state takeovers haven’t ended successfully.
The move comes one week after the school district abruptly terminated the contract of the district’s interim human resources director, who had been working for months to straighten out the office, which had been plagued in disarray.
The state action also comes on the same week that state auditors were expecting to deliver a potentially scathing preliminary audit report. District officials and a majority of school board members originally refused to cooperate with the state auditors.
From the time the petition is filed, the court has seven days to hold a hearing and 10 days to grant or deny receivership. If the court approves the petition, the judge at that time will either accept the department’s recommendation for a receiver, name another person, or direct the department to submit an alternative appointment.
The timing of the process could result in a receiver in place before the next scheduled school board meeting on June 17, which would prevent school board members from taking any further action.
The receivership petition comes just more than a week after a local primary election where all of the incumbent school board members were voted out. That means a change in the majority of the school board was imminent after the fall election, but the current “lame duck” school board would remain in control until December, barring receivership.
The petition filed by Education Secretary Pedro Rivera said he is seeking appointment of a receiver because of the district’s failure or “refusal” to implement the recovery plan. Specifically, he said the district had failed to:
Meet or even make meaningful progress toward established targets for student achievementHire and retain a chief financial officer and qualified business managerDevelop a comprehensive plan to reduce the excessive staff absenteeismExercise 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 petition notes that under Pennsylvania law, the judge must appoint a receiver unless “the court finds clear and convincing evidence that the petition for the appointment of a receiver is arbitrary, capricious or wholly irrelevant to restoring the school district to financial responsibility.”
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.
The way receivership works in Pennsylvania, the receiver would essentially be a CEO, grabbing most of the controls currently held by Superintendent Sybil Knight-Burney and the elected school board for a term of at least three years.
Employees and elected and appointed officials of the school district have a duty to comply with the receiver, and the authority of these individuals to exercise power on behalf of the school district is largely suspended.
Harrisburg’s mayor and lawmakers had publicly called for a state takeover of the district in April. Those public calls came after the school board voted against cooperating fully 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.
School district receivership has been invoked only two times so far in Pennsylvania under the 2012 law – in Duquesne City in Allegheny County and Chester-Upland in Delaware County
(Corbett’s administration also petitioned to have York school placed under a receiver who proposed putting that district’s operations under the management of a for-profit charter school company in late 2014, but it went back into recovery status before anything happened after a court challenge and a change in stance by incoming Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration.)
Papenfuse previously said he is hoping Harrisburg can be the state school receivership law’s first major success.
The second-term mayor, leading a city that he likes to say is in the midst of a renaissance, said his mission in seeking a state takeover is to keep the struggling Harrisburg schools – riven at the top by factionalism and management missteps – from stunting the city’s momentum.
With a large student population and decent local tax base to build off, Papenfuse said he thinks appointment of a receiver could provide the stronger, professional hand to save it from the administrative and political dysfunction he believes has been holding it back.