Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Burg Blog: Time Has Come

The scene at a recent Harrisburg school board meeting

“The state must be getting pretty tired of Harrisburg.”

So said a friend after I bumped into him yesterday downtown on 2nd Street, as our conversation turned to the Harrisburg school district.

I couldn’t disagree with him.

In 2000, the state placed the district into a type of receivership, and, a dozen years later, did the same with the city government. And now, like a recurring nightmare, it may be the school district’s turn again.

Our conversation happened in the midst of the latest escalation in the month-long battle between the school administration and the state Department of Education over a financial audit of the district. School administrators claim they’re cooperating with the audit; the state says they’re not.

On Monday, state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale threw down hard, threatening an undefined “new course of action” unless the district complied. Then, according to PennLive, state Sen. John DiSanto and Rep. Patty Kim came out in favor of receivership. And, yesterday, the state education department sent a letter to the school district, saying it was withholding nearly $11 million in grants until the district fully complies with the audit.

So, do we residents now face a massive property tax hike to cover for the cast of characters roaming around the Lincoln Administration Building?

Not surprisingly, then, support seems to be growing around town for another round of receivership.

About that.

First, be careful what you wish for. Back in 2000, the state turned the district over to former Mayor Steve Reed, who promptly did what he always did—lustily eyed all the beautiful new money he controlled, planned a few “special projects” and piled on the debt.

Moreover, the district has been in “receivership light” for years now, in the form of the state-appointed chief recovery officer, who was supposed to stop the incompetence and shenanigans. Then where was she when the district hired 37 teachers it hadn’t budgeted for or when an employee embezzled a boatload of public money? Meanwhile, student academic performance remains, on average, abysmal.

So, yeah, the state doesn’t have a commendable history when it comes to oversight of the Harrisburg school district.

Having said that—the current situation is ridiculous and unsustainable.

Monday’s appointment of James Ellison as solicitor was the proverbial final nail. For months, it’s been clear that the administration, and the school board majority in its thrall, have been hell-bent on hiring Ellison, perhaps the most controversial pick they could make. By doing so, they knew they were courting disaster, and yet they plowed ahead and did it anyway.

To me, the question has been—why? Why do something so provocative when you already have the state, the city and so many residents hot down your neck? Why do this when your very actions have served as a recruiting tool for a slate of fired-up school board candidates?

This obsession with hiring Ellison makes no logical sense, except in one way—another link in the chain of enablers. Maybe it’s as simple as that.

At some point, there comes a time when you have to change course, when the status quo has become intolerable. Whether through state action or through the ballot box, that time has come.

Lawrance Binda is editor-in-chief of TheBurg.

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