Members of the Harrisburg school board tried, but failed, on Monday night to suspend the district’s superintendent and acting business manager during another contentious meeting.
Board Director Brian Carter introduced the motion to add the suspensions as an item to the agenda following the district’s recent decision to refuse the Pennsylvania Department of Education access to financial information for an audit.
Acting Business Manager Bilal Hasan said his concern wasn’t about giving up the information but allowing the department access to an online financial system with sensitive information.
“No one has ever before come to the district and logged into our accounts to see the information,” Hasan explained.
In a letter dated March 27, the state Department of Education said the district needed to provide the information “without delay.” Director Carrie Fowler, who seconded Carter’s motion, said board members didn’t find out about the letter until Dr. Janet Samuels, the district’s chief recovery officer, emailed them on Friday. It was one hour before PennLive published a story about the district’s refusal to provide the information, Fowler said.
Board President Danielle Robinson called the motion to suspend Hasan and Superintendent Sybil Knight-Burney “highly inappropriate,” and said it was never discussed with the board. However, Fowler quickly accused Robinson of not being “on top of it,” and motioned to add to the agenda an item to remove Robinson as board president, alleging a lack of accountability, transparency, professionalism and leadership.
The motion to add Knight-Burney and Hasan’s suspensions to the April agenda was voted down 5-3-1. Fowler’s motion to add the removal of Robinson as board president to the agenda was rejected 6-2-1.
The board also voted 5-4 against hiring James Ellison as in-house solicitor following public comment that supported him as a candidate. The close vote almost turned into a yes as Director Lionel Gonzalez asked to change his vote toward the end of the meeting. However, current district Solicitor Samuel Cooper said that Gonzalez’s expressed wish to change his vote came too late, so was no longer possible.
Ellison served as general counsel for the district from 1997-99 and again in 2001-05. He also worked with the Coatesville Area School District, but parted ways following a lawsuit that claimed that he over-billed the district and gave them inappropriate advice.
Board members also expressed concerns about how the process to find an in-house solicitor was conducted. Board Director Judd Pittman, who nominated Cooper for the position before Cooper withdrew his name, said candidates were not afforded the same opportunities and not all board members were included.
However, Robinson defended what she said was a four-month process that everyone was involved in.
“What’s really funny and confusing is the people who had an issue with the process were a part of the process,” she said.
Robinson said she’s not sure what will happen now regarding hiring an in-house solicitor. She said they could re-open the process, and Ellison’s name could come up again.
“If he still wants to be a part of the process, he’s more than welcome to,” she said.