The Harrisburg School District is showing improvement financially and academically, but significant challenges remain, according to a report released last month.
The report, a mid-year update to the amended HSD Recovery Plan, ranked the district’s initiatives on a scale of complete, in progress and not completed. Of the 85 initiatives, 50 have been completed, 31 are in progress and four have not been completed.
“I was encouraged because I know how far we have come,” said School Board President Danielle Robinson. “We still have a lot of work to do, but I was encouraged to see the growth and the movement.”
Chief Recovery Officer Dr. Audrey Utley, with the assistance of PFM, a Philadelphia-based government and nonprofit consulting group, prepared the report using information from the district, financial reports and interviews with district staff.
Major gaps remain for the academic goals. If these goals are not met or have not shown advancement, the district risks having a state receiver appointed.
“If the District fails to meet these targets or show significant progress in each building toward the goal by the end of the Plan period, the CRO and the [State] Secretary of Education can take steps to appoint a Receiver effective for the 2018-19 school year,” according to the report.
The phrase “significant progress” saves the district from entirely having to meet academic targets, Robinson said. This phrase, added in the amended recovery plan in May 2016, means that the district will exit recovery next year “as long as there’s growth toward these numbers,” she said.
“We fought to make sure the language was in [the amended recovery plan],” Robinson said. “It’s always under review how can we can make this better.”
The recovery plan’s academic goals challenge the district to “eliminate the gap” or “close the gap by 50 percent” between the district’s testing, attendance and graduation metrics and state averages by June 2018, according to the report.
These targets mean big academic leaps for students and their teachers by June 2018, the end of the recovery plan period.
Take third grade PSSA exams as an example. Last school year, 19.4 percent of district third graders scored proficient or advanced in English and language arts (ELA) on this state test. That’s an improvement from last year’s score of 18.6 percent, but a far cry from the state average of 62 percent. The academic target goal expects 33 percent of district third graders to achieve proficient or advanced levels. That’s a 14.5 percentage-point jump.
For math PSSA scores, students need to make a similar jump of 12.7 percentage points. In other words, 23.1 percent of third graders need to score proficient or advanced in math.
Other goals require smaller jumps on state tests.
For example, Keystone exam scores for John Harris High School students need to jump 7.7 to 8.3 percentage points this year to meet half of the state average.
In general, the report shows steady academic progress, though the scores continue to be below state guidelines.
Other metrics are more encouraging.
District attendance for grades 9 to 12 has steadily increased from 79 percent in 2012-13 to 83 percent in 2014-15. This is just 3 percentage points away from next year’s academic target attendance rate of 86 percent.
John Harris High School’s graduation rate jumped from 42.7 percent in 2013-14 to 52.8 percent in 2014-15.
The report calls the growth in Keystone test literature scores at John Harris High School “promising.” In 2014-15, 23 percent of students scored proficient or advanced. Last year, the school saw nearly a 6 percentage-point increase. Harrisburg High School SciTech Campus exceeds the state averages for proficient or advanced scores in algebra and literature.
“I don’t think that the academic goals are not able to be reached,” Robinson said. “We just must become more focused.”
Pressing “front-burner” issues, such as union contract negotiations and the financial recovery, took priority over student academic achievement in previous years, Robinson said.
“It’s not just, you get into the district and these things are going to change right away,” she said. “Once we got stable financially, now we can say let’s work on our academics. Let’s change the perception of Harrisburg and the district.”
Financially, the report indicated similar mixed messages. The district has a “significant fund balance” of $29.2 million this year. However, the report notes a “concerning” annual structural shortfall of increased expenditures
“… the expenditures are slated to consistently outpace revenues in the coming years and several costly projects and contingencies could consume a substantial portion of the current fund balance,” the report said.
The report calls for the district to create a plan to maintain an 8 percent reserve fund balance (between $12 and 13 million) to ensure “sufficient working capital and provisions for contingencies” for the future.
“We have to go through and figure out what we can do to make sure we don’t have yearly shortfalls that are going to put us back into debt,” Robinson said. “That’s constantly under review.”
The district is hiring three major positions per the recovery plan: a human resources director, a chief financial officer and a professional grant writer.
Robinson said the district is vetting candidates for the human resources position. The district possibly will promote a candidate internally for the CFO position, she said.
The recovery plan outlines the need to hire a grant-writing professional to seek additional funding from competitive grant programs and non-traditional sources. Hiring this position and securing outside funding are two of the four items marked “not completed.” The grant-writing employee retired last year, Robinson said. So far, there’s “nothing solidified” with filling that position, she said.
In addition, the report outlined a need for a full-time English language learning coordinator position, which is currently filled by the director of the online school, Cougar Academy.
One of the hiring challenges is “making sure that the people who we bring in will actually stay,” Robinson said. “Harrisburg [School District] is still growing. You have to be able to grow with us,” she said.
The other incomplete administrative target is creating incentives for teachers to build careers within the district. This item, added with the May 2016 amended plan, suggests the district give teachers a small loan to help purchase homes in the district. Implementing a program has been pushed to next school year, according to the report.
Robinson said the board continues to focus on moving forward.
“We know that it’s not a sprint,” she said. “It’s a marathon.”