At a special board meeting Wednesday night, the Harrisburg school board squabbled over, and ultimately passed, a preliminary 2019 budget that would raise the school portion of the Harrisburg property tax by 3.4 percent.
The majority voting bloc, led by board President Danielle Robinson, defended the budget against board opponents Carrie Fowler, Judd Pittman and Brian Carter.
Four of last week’s five Democratic primary winners, Douglas Thompson Leader, Jayne Buchwach, Steven Williams and James Thompson, attended the meeting. All of the defeated incumbents, Lionel Gonzalez, Lola Lawson, Patricia Whitehead-Myers and Ellis Roy, now in lame-duck status until December, supported the new budget.
Before the protracted budget fight, resident Peter Marks made the only public comment, suggesting that the board ensure that the length of new contracts don’t stymie the incoming board’s policy agendas.
“There will be, in December, a large change to the composition of the board,” Marks said. “I would respectfully suggest that it would be improper for the board to enter into any long-term agreements between now and the time the new board takes these seats.”
During the debate over the new budget, Pittman asserted that his questions and concerns were not adequately answered about the new budget. He claimed that his suggestion to move towards a decentralized budget, akin those in Chicago and New York City public schools, sparked no dialogue or interest from other board members.
“Let’s really engage the public in really thoughtful and mindful dialogue,” Pittman said, referencing the low public attendance of the school board’s public meetings regarding the budget. “Having a meeting to have a meeting to say you had a meeting isn’t engagement.”
Robinson disagreed, saying that there was ample opportunity for questions and comments for both the public and board before the vote took place this evening.
Kirsten Keys, the district’s public relations coordinator, stated that the public meetings were publicized on the website and in local print publications. The board’s social media is occasionally active, though no events or posts about opportunities for public comment on the budget are present.
Pittman also referenced a potential storm water fee that could create a significant financial strain on the district as it owns large swaths of impermeable land, such as parking lots, across the city.
Meanwhile, none of the members addressed the ongoing dispute with the teacher’s union, which had threatened a one-day strike on Friday over ongoing issues with contract negotiations.
Wednesday night’s budget vote approved the district’s preliminary budget for the 2019-20 school year. The school board still must approve a final budget by June 30.