Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Receiver Samuels pledges transparency, collegiality in first school board meeting under her leadership

The Harrisburg school district’s newly appointed receiver, Dr. Janet Samuels, pledged collaboration with the school board, staff members and the larger community during the district’s first school board meeting under state control.

Samuels (pictured at microphone) was appointed as receiver Monday afternoon by Dauphin County Judge William Tully. The three-year appointment requested by the state Department of Education gives Samuels tremendous power to run the district, including responsibility for most educational, administrative and financial policies and decisions.

From the beginning, Samuels ran the meeting differently than board meetings were run previously, stating that she wants the district to operate efficiently and cost effectively. Staff members from the school district read agenda items that related to their departments, and Samuels said that she expects staff members to come to school board meetings.

“One of the things that is expected is members of the staff will read recommendations, but they will also be expected to do homework,” she said. “It is the expectation they are taking copious notes and that we follow up with members of the public.”

Throughout the meeting, Samuels asked staffers to provide rationale for agenda items for greater transparency with the public. She also made notes to address public questions and included costs, funding sources and terms of contracts in the agenda.

In an effort for transparency, the agenda and personnel items were displayed on a screen behind the board so the public could follow along. Samuels said that she also plans to use board documents so members of the public can access agenda items online before the meeting starts.

Cost-efficiency is another one of Samuels’ goals, she said. In the case of a nearly $2 million contract renewal with for-profit alternative education provider Camelot Education, she said that the district plans to be more mindful of spending going forward and will look across the board at re-evaluating contracts in the coming years.

“This is a one-year contract only so that the district and staff have time to do due diligence to look at what’s most appropriate for children and look at how and why decisions were made,” Samuels explained.

Although some school board members and Superintendent Sybil Knight-Burney sat with her during the meeting, Samuels was responsible for approving recommendations.

At the end of the night, Samuels said the goal will be transparency, serving the public and posting agenda items on the screen and prior to board meetings.

“The bottom line is this is about the business of children,” Samuels said. “I see this as an opportunity to work in a collaborative fashion with school board members, with the community, with parents to make a difference for the children in the Harrisburg school district. There are incredible and extraordinary children in this district, and this is about rolling up our sleeves and working together to support all students.”

Samuels said that Monday night’s meeting only addressed the most time-sensitive items. Another school board meeting is scheduled for June 27 at 6 p.m., when Samuels will address payments, approval of the treasurer’s report, budget transfers and other items. The district also must pass a final budget for the 2019-20 school year.

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