Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Mandate or Suggestion? State calls on Harrisburg school district to seek new financial managers

Members of the district’s business office, from left: acting assistant business manager Regis Barwin, interim CFO James Snell and acting business manager Bilal Hasan.

Soon after wrapping up a protracted debate over its superintendent, the Harrisburg school district may find itself in another personnel battle.

The state Department of Education is asking the district to search for new leadership for its business office, which oversees budgets and financial management.

In a letter to the district on Monday, department Secretary Pedro Rivera said that the district’s chief financial officer and business manager do not meet the criteria set forth in its five-year recovery plan, which calls for full-time, permanent, highly qualified employees to fill both positions.

The school board has final say on all district personnel actions. But board members, who diverged for the past six months over whether to replace or retain Superintendent Sybil Knight-Burney, once again disagree on the need to seek new hires.

Board President Judd Pittman interprets the letter as a directive from the state, giving the district no choice but to replace interim, part-time CFO James Snell and acting Business Manager Bilal Hasan. But board Vice President Danielle Robinson thinks the district should keep the current team.

“It’s not a directive, it’s a suggestion,” Robinson said. “The team we have in place is giving us what we need.”

The business manager and CFO are responsible for developing and managing the district’s $156 million budget. This year, the district faces a shortfall of almost $9 million. The business office has proposed bridging it with a $5 million transfer from its fund balance, $4 million in staff cuts, and a 3.6 percent tax hike.

“The people we had in [the business office] before are the reason we’re in the situation we’re in now,” said Robinson. “Hasan and Snell have helped us come out of it.”

The district’s business office has seen a revolving door of interim and acting managers in the past five years. The office had permanent leadership during the 2016-17 school year, when William Gretton served as CFO and Kenneth Medina as business manager.

Gretton resigned last July to take a superintendent position near Philadelphia, and Medina was reassigned to a grants management role in August.

Pittman called the lack of consistent leadership in the business office “a cancer.” He said that, while he appreciates Snell and Hasan’s hard work over the past year, he’s been frustrated with the district’s administration – including the superintendent – during this year’s budget talks.

“I haven’t gotten answers to the questions I’ve been asking this budget cycle,” Pittman said. “I haven’t seen any creativity.”

Pittman said that the administration has lagged on actions that would generate more revenue, such as selling its vacant properties or seeking out payments from tax exempt entities in the city.

Since the state could put the district in receivership once its five-year recovery plan ends on June 30, Pittman thinks it’s imperative that the board act now on PDE’s directive.

Knight-Burney declined to comment on the letter today, but Chief Recovery Officer Audrey Utley said that the district would need to seek new personnel.

“[Hasan] does not have the required experience,” Utley said. “PDE is saying that we need to do a search now.”

Utley was referring to the criteria set forth in the recovery plan, which calls for a business manager with “substantial prior experience and… a successful, documented track record” overseeing a business office in a similar-sized district.

Hasan also lacks certifications from the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials. He was serving as assistant business manager in February when he was promoted to acting business manager at a salary of $113,000.

He was floated as a potential business manager in 2016, according to school board minutes, but passed over in favor of a more experienced candidate (the job ultimately went to Medina.)

Robinson said that she would support Hasan seeking coursework and certifications to become a full-time, permanent business manager.

Separately, the school district announced today the resignation of Percel Eiland as a school board director. The district now must find and appoint a replacement for Eiland, who served just six months of his two-year term.

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