Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

In a surprise move, Harrisburg School Board rescinds vote on superintendent.

Superintendent Sybil Knight-Burney speaks at a press conference in December 2017.

The Harrisburg School District may not be getting a new superintendent after all, thanks to an unexpected vote at Monday night’s monthly board meeting.

Last month, the board voted 5-4 to approve a resolution opening the position of superintendent to new applicants. The move signaled to sitting superintendent Sybil Knight-Burney that her contract would not be automatically renewed when it ends on June 30.

But on Monday, Tyrell Spradley, the board member who cast the deciding vote on that contentious resolution, motioned to rescind it. His motion passed 5-4 with board members Carrie Fowler, Percel Eiland, Brian Carter and board President Judd Pittman in the minority.

Asked what the vote meant for Knight-Burney’s contract, district Solicitor Samuel Cooper pointed to Pennsylvania school charter. That law states that the board must give the acting superintendent 90 days-notice if they do not intend to automatically renew her contract.

But if the board fails to take action, then the terms Knight-Burney is serving extend for one year, Cooper said.

By nullifying the vote from last month, the board has essentially chosen to forego any action on the superintendent’s contract. It will automatically renew for a one-year provisional period, but Cooper said the board could act before then to renew it for a term up to five years.

The motion to rescind March’s superintendent vote did not appear on the board agenda ahead of tonight’s meeting, and board members did not say whether they had explicit notice that it would come up. According to the Pennsylvania School Board Association, that creates some ambiguity over how many votes the motion needed to pass.

A PSBA publication outlining parliamentary procedure said that the conditions for approving a rescission depend on whether the board had advance notice of the vote. If the board did have notice, only a simple majority is needed to pass the motion.

Absent such notice, however, “either a majority of the entire membership or a two-thirds majority of those present and voting is needed,” the manual states.

Cooper seemed confident tonight that the motion passed on firm procedural grounds. He said that the board seldom makes rescissions, even though members can legally revisit any past action in their meetings. According to the PSBA, the board cannot rescind an action during the same session when they voted on it. Other than that, there is no time limit on rescinding.

Spradley said after the meeting that he changed his mind about the superintendent search because the board received new information about personnel and budget matters.

Allowing Knight-Burney’s contract to renew for one additional year will preserve consistency in the district and lead to better decision-making by the board, he said.

“I don’t have an issue looking for candidates, but we need time to find the correct ones,” Spradley said. “The board may feel rushed.”

Spradley pointed out that the provisional renewal of Knight-Burney’s contract did not preclude the board from soliciting applications and conducting a superintendent search over a longer period of time. However, he could not say if there was any collective will on the board to conduct such a search.

Board President Judd Pittman was disappointed, but not surprised, by the board’s action. He said his position on Knight-Burney’s tenure has not changed in the past three years he’s served on the board.

“When you look at our academic data and the evidence we put forth for our success, it just isn’t there,” Pittman said. “If we’d done a search and Knight-Burney came out as the best candidate, I would have supported her… but our responsibility as a board is to hold everyone as accountable as possible.”

Pittman said that the board had not yet advertised Knight-Burney’s job ahead of the meeting, but he claimed he had received numerous solicitations from interested candidates following March’s vote.

He also confirmed Spradley’s claim that the board received new information about district business since March. He said that a recent budget presentation announced projections that were “more bleak” than what they’d been anticipating.

District Chief Financial Officer James Snell told the board that Harrisburg school district is facing some serious financial challenges.

Budget projections prepared by consultants at Philadelphia-based firm Public Financial Management anticipate that rising expenditures and flat revenues will generate years of consecutive deficits and ultimately draw down the district’s $21.6 million fund balance.

PFM consultant Marissa Litman told the board that the fund balance could be depleted in as few as three years, even if the board levies the highest possible tax hikes.

Expenditure projections anticipate no salary increase for HEA represented employees, but it does anticipate that bargaining will move some teachers up a salary step based on a grievance settlement. Social security and pension payments will increase along with those salary expenditures, and the projections also call for $3 million for facilities enhancements. The expenditure projections assume that the district will continue its debt service payments and will not borrow any more money.

Litman reminded the board that projections are based on assumptions that are subject to change. Nonetheless, she advised the board to correct its spending to avoid drawing down its fund balance.

“This has been projected for a number of years and now we have to deal with it,” Litman said.

The district was able to add to its fund balance as recently as the 2014-15 fiscal year. But the district ran a $3.7 million deficit in 2015-2016, followed by a deficit of roughly half a million in 2016-2017. The adopted 2017-18 budget anticipates another $6 million deficit.

The district has scheduled a public meeting on April 30 to hear a more detailed budget presentation and consider the first draft of a 2018-19 budget. The meeting will begin at 5:30 p.m. in the Lincoln Administration Building at 1601 State St.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the years that the district accrued deficits. That information has been corrected. 

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