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Harrisburg school district asks court to delay hearing on receivership

A recent meeting of the Harrisburg school board

The Harrisburg school district is requesting a delay in a Friday hearing to determine whether the district will be placed into receivership.

In a court filing today, district Solicitor James Ellison requested a delay for the hearing until Tuesday, claiming that scheduled Friday hearing was too early for the district to properly “prepare a defense.”

“Given the volume of information contained in the Petition and its related exhibits, as well as the significance of the remedy sought by [state Education] Secretary [Pedro] Rivera which could result in a state takeover for the second time in two consecutive decades and change the government of the Harrisburg School District from that of local control to a state appointed receiver, the District and the Harrisburg School District Board of School Directors are requesting additional time to adequately defend against the Petition and the claims set forth therein,” according to the “Motion for Continuance” filed by Ellison.

The requested June 11 hearing date is still within the seven-day statutory requirement to hold a hearing following the submission of Rivera’s court petition on Monday, Ellison wrote.

Ellison stated that Rivera’s “counsel have [sic] invested a significant amount of time to gather information and materials to craft the Petition,” which totals 403 pages, with 14 separate exhibits. Therefore, Ellison wrote, the request for a continuance is “reasonable” and “fair.”

After the hearing is held, the court has 10 days to make a decision to grant or deny receivership.

Yesterday, Rivera filed a petition with the Dauphin County Court of Common Pleas asking the court to appoint a receiver for the district, namely Dr. Janet Samuels, the current chief recovery officer for the district. Judge William Tully then set the hearing for Friday at 1:30 p.m.

In the petition, Rivera offered numerous reasons for the request for the three-year receivership, which would put the district directly under the control of the court-appointed receiver and a Board of Control. These included:

  • “Failing to meet, or even make progress toward, established targets for student achievement.”
  • “Failing to hire or retain a Chief Financial Officer and a qualified Business Manager with the requisite experience to provide financial leadership.”
  • “Failing to develop a comprehensive plan to reduce the excessive staff absenteeism that negatively impacts the District’s ability to serve its students.”
  • “Failing to exercise appropriate administrative controls by maintaining an accurate staff position file, resulting in, among other things, the District improperly providing health care benefits to former employees at the cost of more than $700,000.”

“The Secretary seeks the appointment of a receiver because the District has failed to implement or fulfill key initiatives in a financial recovery plan unanimously adopted by its board of directors, approved by the Secretary of Education, and prepared consistent with a statutory obligation to provide for the delivery of effective educational services to all students enrolled in the District and for the District’s return to financial stability,” according to Rivera’s petition.

On a related issue, school board President Danielle Robinson has called a special meeting of the school board for Thursday to discuss “personnel issues.”

The meeting notice, in today’s issue of the Patriot-News, does not indicate specifically which personnel matters are at issue. However, both Superintendent Sybil Knight-Burney and Solicitor James Ellison currently lack contracts with the district.

The timing, just before the scheduled receivership hearing, may indicate that the administration’s supporters on the school board might try to approve new contracts for Knight-Burney and Ellison just before the district goes into receivership, after which the board would lose that power.

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