Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

“I’m done:” School board members threaten walk out, exchange barbs over spontaneous action on superintendent contract.

The Harrisburg School Board reached new heights of dysfunction on Thursday night when a surprise vote on the superintendent’s contract devolved into shouting match between its members.

Superintendent Sybil Knight-Burney’s term expires on June 30, and the board must negotiate new terms to avoid leaving her out of a contract come July 1.

But the board voted 5-3 against a resolution that would have bought the parties additional time for negotiations. It left them with just two days to offer the superintendent new terms.

Board Vice President Danielle Robinson said that language in the resolution made her uncomfortable and that it seemed like a veiled attempt to rescind the board’s decision to award Knight-Burney a new contract. She was joined by board directors Melvin Wilson, Ellis Roy, Lionel Gonzalez and Tyrell Spradley in rejecting the provision.

The resolution was developed by the board solicitor with help from the Pennsylvania School Board Association, board President Judd Pittman said. He later expressed “ridiculous, incredible frustration” that his colleagues had voted it down.

Since Knight-Burney’s contract was set to expire on June 30, Pittman advised the board that it needed to codify her new term before then, since failure to act could be considered a breach of contract.

The board decided in April to rehire Knight-Burney for a term of 3 to 5 years.

“We did not set the length of the term in the first vote. We said we would do it later,” Pittman explained. “That time has since come, and now we’re in a position where we need to put forth a motion.”

Gonzalez then put forth a motion to grant Knight-Burney a five-year term. His resolution did not address any other terms of her contract, such as salary or job expectations.

The motion, which did not appear on the meeting agenda, drew the ire of two dozen residents in attendance, who said that the board should not make a consequential decision on short notice, while other terms of the contract were still in negotiation.

“We haven’t discussed this as a board,” board director Carrie Fowler said.

As the board secretary called the vote, a reporter lodged an objection under the state Sunshine Act, which says any action taken by a government body must be preceded by public comment.

Since the motion was added to the agenda mid-meeting, the public did not have the chance to weigh in. Board Solicitor Samuel Cooper later agreed that the public should have the chance to comment.

Pittman called a recess, and in the melee that followed, board directors exchanged heated words while members of the public continued to shout in exasperation. One board director began yelling at the board solicitor, who joined the meeting over the phone.

Acrimony between school directors has been on full display at board meetings in the past months. But as one audience member said, “This is the best one yet.”

Board directors continued to argue after Pittman called the meeting back into order. He attempted to convene an executive session and then tried to go home when other board directors would not join him.

“I’m done,” he said.

Board director Brian Carter did leave the meeting, but later returned to vote on personnel actions.

After more discussion and procedural fumbles, Fowler put forth an amendment to Gonzalez’s motion, proposing a three-year contract for Knight-Burney. The exasperated board passed the motion 8-0.

The board also voted last night to levy a 3.6-percent tax hike and approve a budget eliminating 52 staff positions.

Business Manager Bilal Hasan said that the cuts will be made through attrition, meaning that personnel who retire or resign will not be replaced. As a result, no district employees will lose their jobs, he said.

“We’re cutting positions, not people,” he said.

The tax hike will bring the district’s millage rate to 28.8 mills, an increase of 1.0008 mills from this year. With Harrisburg’s median home value of $42,800, the tax hike will cost the average city homeowner an additional $43 a year.

Board directors Robinson, Wilson, Roy, Gonzalez and Spradley voted to approve the budget. Pittman, Fowler and Carter dissented.

Board director Percel Eiland announced his resignation from the board last week, leaving the body with just eight members.

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