Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Burg View: Cursed City

Harrisburg school district receiver Dr. Janet Samuels with Dr. John George, the district’s newly hired financial recovery plan service director.

In his famous book, “On the Road,” author Jack Kerouac, having spent a night on a bench in the train station and then run out of town, famously decried Harrisburg as, “Cursed city!”

That thought beat through my brain as I read the latest missive to the cursed— “Harrisburg City School District: Agreed Upon Procedures and Technical Consulting Report”—otherwise known as the state Department of Education’s financial audit, which was released today.

For the past decade, the city of Harrisburg has been pulling itself out of the financial crater following former Mayor Steve Reed’s 28 years in office. And now this.

But at least Reed got maybe $500 million of value from the $1 billion in debt he piled onto the city’s credit card. A terrible return, for sure, but it’s hard to discern what exactly Harrisburg and its children got from nine years of Superintendent Sybil Knight-Burney and her crew.

Oh, actually, it’s not. It’s in the report:

  • Over $3.8 million in “questioned costs and unsupported expenditures”
  • The cost of health benefits inappropriately continued to more than 100 terminated employees
  • A quickly disappearing general fund balance
  • A lack of financial oversight and controls
  • An acting business manager utterly unqualified for his job
  • Cafeteria operations running enormous deficits
  • An uncertified school nurse who provided students with medical services
  • Frequent overpayment of contractors
  • Rampant errors in personnel records
  • A “history of inadequate ‘Tone at the Top’ and poor ethical values”

I could go on and on, but perhaps you should just read the report by the consultant, Wessel & Co., for yourself. Harrisburg City SD – AUP and Consulting Report 2016-2018

This, of course, is just the latest horrible district news, building upon years of poor student achievement, large and small scandals, a lack of transparency and accountability, and, now, missing computers and financial data.


In 2011, the commonwealth of Pennsylvania placed the city government into receivership, which, though we didn’t know it at the time, ended up being the first step in restoring Harrisburg to relative financial health.

In comparison, the school district’s fiscal situation, while very bad, is actually not as terrible as the city’s was—to the extent that “not bankrupt” is an improvement.

Like the city, though, the district will need to rebuild its top leadership, its financial and management systems and the public confidence—no small order. Of course, it has the extra responsibility of providing a decent education for Harrisburg’s children, which is supposed to be its core mission.

In 2014, Harrisburg emerged from state receivership still shaky, but it allowed the city to set the stage for more responsible leadership, which, thankfully, arrived. Here’s hoping that, after a three-year receivership, we’ll be able to say the same for the Harrisburg school district—that it pushed reset, stabilized and rebounded.

Then, perhaps finally and forever, Harrisburg can shake off Kerouac’s term, “cursed city.”

Lawrance Binda is editor-in-chief of TheBurg.

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