Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

As deadline nears, School Board postpones action on superintendent contract.

Clergy from the Interdenominational Ministers Conference of Harrisburg speak before the Harrisburg School Board in support of superintendent Sybil Knight-Burney.

The Harrisburg School Board once again delayed a vote that would launch a search for a new superintendent, giving them just six weeks to act before the sitting superintendent’s contract is automatically removed.

The board voted 5-3 tonight to strike down a resolution that would have opened Superintendent Sybil Knight-Burney’s post to a competitive application process – one in which she could participate. Knight-Burney’s four-year term expires on June 30.

State law requires the board to give Knight-Burney 90 days notice if they choose to put her contract in jeopardy. Unless they start the search process at their March 20 meeting – the last one before the state-imposed April 1 deadline — her contract will be renewed under its current terms for one year.

It is the second time that the board has decided to table a decision on the superintendent search process. The same resolution that was struck down tonight was also removed from the December agenda on procedural grounds.

Board President Judd Pittman voted tonight with board directors Carrie Fowler and Brian Carter against removing the agenda item. After the vote, Pittman decried the board’s failure to act proactively on the issue.

“It’s time to stop admiring the problem,” Pittman said, referring to the district’s record of poor performance. Harrisburg schools perennially log some of the lowest test scores and graduation rates in the state.

Pittman initially raised the issue of Knight-Burney’s contract in December to keep the board in compliance with the district’s school code. Whereas state law requires the board to give Knight-Burney 90 days notice if they choose not to renew her contract, school code requires 150 days.

School district Solicitor Samuel Cooper acknowledged tonight that the board entered a legal gray zone when it passed the 150-day window. Nonetheless, he said that state law trumps school code and advised board members that they could postpone a decision until April 1 at the latest.

Board Vice President Danielle Robinson, whom Pittman recently replaced as president, led the charge last month and again tonight to table the discussion on Knight-Burney’s contract. She argued that new board members would be unprepared to make informed decisions about the administration early in their tenures. The current board has three newcomers: Brian Carter and Carrie Fowler, who took seats in November and December, respectively, and Tyrell Spradley, who was appointed to a vacant seat on Feb. 8.

Robinson said tonight that the board has not had the chance to discuss the superintendent’s contract as a group. She won’t consider any action on the topic until they do.

“This was all about scheduling a meeting,” Robinson said, referring to the board’s dispute over the resolution.

Robinson supports renewing Knight-Burney’s contract after renegotiating its terms. She said she would not challenge the resolution again in March, so long as the board meets to discuss it before then.

For his part, Pittman thinks that the board should solicit new applications and encourage Knight-Burney to apply for another term. Jody Barksdale, president of the Harrisburg Education Association, declined to comment on behalf of the teachers’ union.

A number of residents who came to tonight’s meeting to support Knight-Burney declined to speak after the resolution was nullified. Karl Singleton, a former mayoral aide, expressed his support for the administration but called for Knight-Burney’s contract to be renegotiated.

“What this vote is actually about is a review process,” Singleton said. “Contracts are renewed every year because nobody should be beyond reproach.”

Four clergy members from the Interdenominational Ministers Conference addressed the board as a group and asked them to grant Knight-Burney another term.

“It’s for continuity,” said Bishop David Screven. “Every time a superintendent comes in, they start from scratch. The school district was very much in the hole when she got here, and we have the opportunity now to grow.”

Next month, the state Department of Education will also weigh in on Knight-Burney’s tenure. Department officials have a meeting scheduled with board representatives on March 13 to consider the district’s potential exit from a state recovery program.

If the state decides the district has not met the standards outlined in its recovery plan by that time, it could place the district in receivership. During the meeting, Pittman emphasized that the district’s performance under Knight-Burney will determine its fate once its five-year recovery plan expires in June.

“What we have in front of us is real, and it’s grave,” Pittman said. “We need to make sure we do everything in our power to retain local control of our school district.”

Correction: The resolution to open a new superintendent search process first appeared on the School Board agenda in December; it did not appear in January.

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