Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Burg View: Harrisburg’s School Daze

You’ll have to forgive the residents of Harrisburg for a certain case of whiplash.

On Monday night, the city school board voted 5-4 to retain the district’s long-serving superintendent, at least for another year. Minutes later, board members sat through a crushing report on the district’s dire financial condition.

In fact, the district’s finances are so bad, the board was told, that years of deficits are projected, even if the district imposes the maximum allowable annual tax hikes.

How do we make sense of this?

The short answer—it doesn’t make sense.

But the problem isn’t just financial. The poorly performing district has shown scant academic improvement since Superintendent Sybil Knight-Burney was hired in 2011. In fact, it consistently has fallen far short of academic goals imposed by the commonwealth, meaning it probably will stay in the state’s recovery program for troubled school districts past its scheduled exit in June. Nor is the appointment of a state receiver for the district out of the question.

Meanwhile, over just the past year, the district has experienced crisis after crisis, including high teacher turnover, mass student suspensions, a faculty revolt over abusive students, a supervisor who admitted stealing almost $180,000 from the district, and the bizarre, administration-led investigation—at the district’s expense—of two of its own school board members (who just happened to be vocal critics of the superintendent).

Indeed, Knight-Burney has her strong supporters, who believe the system has shown some improvement during her tenure. They often cite a district-wide curriculum management plan, restoration of full-day kindergarten and a few, rather isolated academic bright spots. So, I guess, it’s not all bad news.

But, after seven years, “not all bad news” is weak sauce for students struggling to get by, for teachers who feel besieged in their own classrooms and for city property owners who, evidently, are looking at rising tax bills as far as the eye can see.

Apparently, though, it is good enough for the five board members who voted to retain Knight-Burney, who earns $179,208 annually, for the 2018-19 school year.

We’ll have to see if any board members change their minds come July, when city residents receive their new tax bills. So far, residents have shown remarkable patience as they wait for city schools to improve, but nothing erodes good will faster than a tax shock. Will they sit idly by while being asked to pay more to support an administration that clearly is not succeeding?

Lawrance Binda is editor-in-chief of TheBurg.

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