Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Amid jeers and boos, Harrisburg School Board votes to re-hire Superintendent Knight-Burney.

Sybil Knight-Burney will remain the superintendent of the Harrisburg school district for at least three more years, the city’s school board decided on Monday night.

After almost an hour of public comment during which district residents overwhelmingly called for Knight-Burney to be replaced, the board rejected a motion that would have hired a search firm to find a new superintendent and passed another measure to retain her for a term of three to five years.

Frustrated residents began jeering the board before its members could vote on the second motion.

“You don’t care!” one resident yelled. “This is insanity, clear as day. You don’t care.”

“This is ridiculous!” Gerald Welch yelled, before chanting “Shame!” as he and two dozen other exasperated residents left the gymnasium.

The vote was met with a smattering of applause before the board called a five-minute recess.

Almost 100 people attended tonight’s board meeting, where a vote on the district’s 2018-19 budget was postponed until later this month. About a dozen contributed public comments on the superintendent’s contract, but only one, Earl Harris, spoke in favor of retaining Knight-Burney.

The other residents called for a change in leadership, making charges of nepotism, poor money management and unprofessional conduct among the district’s administration and school board.

Yanna Kent, a Harrisburg High School alumnae, said she did not want to see the district put in state receivership, which is one possibility facing it when its five-year recovery plan expires in June.

“We need to do a better job,” Kent said, addressing the board and the administration. “We put you here to work for us and, if you don’t want your job, leave.”

Other residents pointed to the fact that state test score and graduation rates have remained stagnant or declined under Knight-Burney’s leadership. Some called out the administration for not yet completing the initiatives outlined in the district’s five-year recovery plan.

Almost 70 percent of the initiatives have been fully completed as of February 2018, according to the most recent report available from the state’s chief recovery officer.

“If I only complete at 70 percent of what my job had asked me to do, would I be able to continue, especially when other people are willing to go 100 percent?” said Carmen Dones. “It’s time to say thank you, but I think it’s time that we say goodbye.”

Board President Judd Pittman, who voted against retaining Knight-Burney, pointed to other sobering facts from the past two years: $180,000 in district funds were embezzled by an employee, 70 teachers were hired at the wrong pay step, and the district revealed two years of over-hiring by its business office.

Those factors have contributed to an $8 million budget deficit this year, as well as a structural deficit that threatens to eat up the district’s general fund by 2021.

Pittman cited these incidents as evidence that the district has not implemented strong accountability systems during Knight-Burney’s tenure.

“In 11 years, if you have not had time to put systems in place it’s time to come to the table with [solutions], or it’s time for us to look at other opportunities to put systems in place,” Pittman said before the board voted on the superintendent’s contract.

Speaking after the board meeting adjourned at 11 p.m., Knight-Burney said her main priority entering her next term is promoting the academic achievement of students.

“I’m hopeful that the board and the community can see the work I’ve done, and see that this is a chance to build on it,” she said. “I hope that the people who want change can help with solutions and help get it right, not just point out [problems.] A school can’t do that alone, it takes a community.”

Pittman has been advocating since December for the board to launch a superintendent search. The board passed a motion to do that in March and then tried to rescind that action in April.

Board director Tyrell Spradley raised the motion to rescind in April, after voting in March to consider new candidates for Knight-Burney’s post. Spradley voted to retain the superintendent, along with board directors Ellis Roy, Lionel Gonzalez, Melvin Wilson and vice president Danielle Robinson.

Board directors Brian Carter, Carrie Fowler, and Percel Eiland joined Pittman in the minority.

This story was updated to include comments from Sybil Knight-Burney.

Continue Reading