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Harrisburg school district leaders swept out, as receiver brings in outside team

Harrisburg school district Receiver Janet Samuels speaks to the press following Thursday night’s school board meeting.

Harrisburg’s newly appointed school receiver is clearing out most of the district’s top leadership, firing the superintendent, the solicitor and the business manager, among others.

Dr. Janet Samuels tonight announced a new partnership that will subcontract most district management functions, including those of the superintendent, to Norristown-based Montgomery County Intermediate Unit No. 23, one of 29 “intermediate units” set up by the state legislature in 1971 to provide support to local school districts.

Therefore, as of June 30, most of the district’s top positions will be eliminated, terminating the employment of the following people:

  • Superintendent Sybil Knight-Burney
  • Solicitor James Ellison
  • Business Manager Bilal Hasan
  • Acting Harrisburg High School Principal Barbara Hasan
  • Federal Program Administrator Damali Brunson-Murray
  • Acting HR Director Lance Freeman
  • HR Manager Shelena Roy
  • ACCESS Coordinator Annette Roy

The chief academic officer position will also be eliminated, but Jaimie Foster, who currently serves in that job, will become the new Harrisburg High School principal, replacing Barbara Hasan.

“This was done with much thought and much care,” Samuels said following the announcement. “We are going to move in a very, very, very aggressive manner.”

Earlier today, word leaked that Knight-Burney had sent an email to staff that indicated that she would leave her job, which she’s held for nearly a decade. Until tonight, it was not clear whether she was resigning or would be fired.

According to the resolution detailing the shakeup, Montgomery County Intermediate Unit No. 23 will supply “a team of highly qualified individuals to provide leadership and administration of business services, human resources, internal operations, academic services and student services operations” for a period of three years.

Dr. John J. George, the executive director of Montgomery County Intermediate Unit No. 23 and the former acting superintendent of the Reading school district, will head up the team.

The resolution praises George for “dramatic financial improvements and educational improvements in the Reading School District.”

“The turnaround of the Reading school district was a result of our ability to design and implement a comprehensive, systematic plan that rebuilt the governance, academic, financial, personnel and operational functions of the school district,” George said, in a statement. “We will utilize a similar strategy to review every aspect of the Harrisburg school district, correct any deficiencies, and create systems to ensure that the district is fiscally efficient, staffed with qualified and effective teachers and employees, and is moving towards academic excellence.”

Montgomery County Intermediate Unit No. 23 will “provide key administrative functions of the district and develop an intervention plan designed to stabilize and rebuild the financial and human resources systems of the district, design and implement a K-12 academic plan, design a governance plan, hire key administrative positions and eventually return the district to local control,” according to the resolution.

George will “provide a reorganization plan for the district leadership team, will realign administrative functions to align with a new organization chart, will provide personnel to administer the office of business services, office of human resources, office of academics and office of student services and will to the greatest extent practical collaborate with the current district staff members and assume that all employees are working with fidelity,” according to the resolution.

Samuels also announced that the district will return to hiring an outside law firm for legal counsel, in this case Philadelphia-based Fox Rothschild LLP at a rate of $250 to $300 an hour, depending on the type of work.

The resolution offered various reasons for the personnel terminations. For Knight-Burney, the rationale was that she was working in violation of the law.

“Dr. Sybil Knight-Burney’s most recent appointment as superintendent was non-compliant with Act 82 of 2012, as she was appointed without the required written contract of employment and all payments made to her during the 2018-19 school year when she did not have a written contract were non-compliant with Pennsylvania law,” stated the resolution.

The resolution further said that her resume “does not provide any official letter of eligibility to be a superintendent in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”

Montgomery County Intermediate Unit No. 23 will now assume “the job responsibilities of the superintendent,” according to the resolution.

The resolution also states that the receiver has broad latitude to replace non-instructional personnel, including the solicitor and business manager.

The position eliminations and terminations, Samuels said, would reduce staff expenses by $600,000 per year.

“The bottom line is that this is what’s best for the children,” she said. “This is a reorganization that will work.”

Almost lost in the district shakeup was what, ordinarily, would be the big news of the night—the 2019-20 budget vote.

Earlier in the meeting, the district school board, by a 6-2 vote, passed its 2019-20 budget, which was unchanged from the preliminary budget approved last month. The $155 million budget will result in an increase of 3.4 percent for the school portion of the city property tax, increasing the millage rate from 28.8 mills to 29.78 mills.

Read the full resolution and press release on the school district’s website.

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