Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Burg Blog: Turn the Page

Dr. Janet Samuels, the Harrisburg school district’s receiver, second from left, listens to a question during last night’s meeting.

Last night, the Harrisburg school district’s newly appointed receiver showed that she wasn’t messing around.

Dr. Janet Samuels fired most of the district’s top leadership, including the superintendent, the solicitor, the business manager and the high school principal.

In a show of force, she ripped out the old system by the roots and is bringing in a team of turnaround experts, who will largely run the district for the next three years.

In response to the news, several area social media pages broke out in what can only be described as delight.

And that, to me, tells the truest story of what has become of the Harrisburg school district.

Sure, residents aren’t happy about the district’s academic performance, which remains subpar, or by a second straight year of tax hikes, approved last night.

But, more than anything, Harrisburg residents generally welcomed the extreme solution of state receivership and, now, the wholesale replacement of the district’s leadership, because they felt powerless, with no other recourse.

They had lost all confidence in the district’s administrators to do almost anything competently or to make decisions that didn’t seem profoundly self-serving.

That’s the real reason why, last month, Harrisburg voters did an alt-control-delete on the school board, throwing out all the incumbents on the ballot in favor of candidates who promised transparency, accountability and competence.

I found it striking that, during the many debates preceding the school board election, the challenging candidates talked about openness, character and capability at least as much as curriculum and achievement. Taxes almost never came up, either from the moderator or from the floor.

Residents were looking to be saved from a district leadership that, to them, had spun out of control—that couldn’t seem to do anything right, that didn’t seem to care, that appeared devoted primarily to its own preservation and that wasn’t being held accountable by a supine majority on the school board.

That’s why Harrisburg voters flipped the board and why they then pleaded for the state to take over. It seemed a radical solution, but seemingly the only way to force change.

In fact, the wisdom of the voters was on display last night, when two board members who supported the old regime petulantly stomped out halfway through the meeting—loudly, dramatically departing before Samuels unveiled the district’s new direction to the public.

So—here’s to a new beginning for the Harrisburg school district.

May last night’s meeting be the first step towards transparency (no more abuse of executive sessions), competence (no more hiring debacles and budget shocks), civility (no more arrogance and disrespect) and accountability (no more excuses). And, please, please, no more drama.

To her credit, Samuels last night took a big step in the right direction, striking a respectful and open tone throughout the meeting.

Perhaps, now, we can get back to focusing like a laser on caring for and educating Harrisburg’s children, which should be the only priority of the public school system.

Lawrance Binda is editor-in-chief of TheBurg.

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