Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Harrisburg school district finances in shambles, computers missing, as recovery team begins work

Dr. John George speaks to the press as Harrisburg school district receiver Dr. Janet Samuels looks on.

The Harrisburg school district recovery team needs to reconstruct much of the district’s key financial data, as critical financial records have gone missing and existing data can’t be trusted, officials said today.

Dr. John J. George, the financial recovery plan service director, said that numerous computers containing key financial data are missing from the district’s financial office. In addition, those records were not backed up, as they should have been, resulting in substantial information gaps, he said.

“I know that the records are missing,” said George, following a press conference that introduced key members of receiver Dr. Janet Samuels’ new leadership team. “I don’t know why they’re missing or how they’re missing.”

The missing computers were only discovered yesterday, the first day on the job for the team, George said. Samuels dismissed the district’s top officials, including former Superintendent Sybil Knight-Burney, effective Sunday, June 30.

George declined to say whether law enforcement had been contacted, nor would he say exactly what types of records are missing, other than that they are “certain key financial records.”

But he did say that the missing records pose a significant problem trying to understand the district’s current financial state.

“These are financial records that are important to the operation of the Harrisburg school district and that seem to be no longer there,” said George, who is the executive director of the Montgomery County Intermediate Unit, one of 29 “intermediate units” that offer educational services to local school districts.

The Harrisburg school district uses a web-based financial management software system called eFinance. However, the missing records also were not included in that system, George said.

Moreover, George said that he had little confidence in the accuracy of the data that is in the system.

“We have to rebuild the financial system immediately,” he said. “Right now, we have little confidence in any of the dollar figures available to us. That’s not a good position to be in.”

George said that his team will need to go through the district’s paperwork, “piece by piece and redo those systems.” He estimated that about 10,000 account codes will need to be examined.

“So, we have to go through account code by account code and make sure that expenditures are being properly coded and revenue is being properly recorded so that we have a baseline,” he said. “Our initial analysis, and we’re 24 hours into this right now, is that there are already significant errors in the accounting procedures.”

Under Samuels, the Harrisburg district has entered into a three-year contract with the Montgomery County Intermediate Unit (MCIU) to provide a host of services to the district.

For the most part, team members are replacing the former top district administrators, including the superintendent, the business manager and the human resources manager. Samuels said that the $1.4 million contract with MCIU is $600,000 less than the district was paying the in-house personnel who held those jobs.

Samuels today said that she decided to hire MCIU because of her past experience with George. She credits him for helping to stabilize the finances and improve the operations of the Reading School District.

“This district deserves highly competent, highly credentialed and qualified individuals, and that is exactly what exists within Dr. George,” she said.

George will remain with MCIU and will not be compensated by the Harrisburg district. Chris Celmer, the assistant superintendent for the Reading district, will lead the team on a daily basis as Harrisburg’s chief operating officer.

Like George, Samuels described the current state of the district financially and operationally as woeful.

“Very intentionally, it was looking at some of the failures here in the school district, some of the mismanagement that has taken place over a period of time here in the school district and really determining and deciding what could be done about it,” she said. “The time is now, and we look forward to making a difference.”

George said that, besides the financial aspect, the recovery team will assess the quality of personnel and strive for academic progress.

“It’s going to take time,” he said. “Our contract is for three years. I believe that we can make systemic change in three years.”

“We have no more time to waste,” Samuels said.

Continue Reading