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Receivership year one: Harrisburg school district officials assess progress

File photo of Receiver Janet Samuels at a 2019 school board meeting.

A year has passed since the Harrisburg School District was transferred into the hands of state receivership.

Before appointing Dr. Janet Samuels as receiver of the district, Dauphin County Judge William Tully presented his “Memorandum Opinion.” He noted the failure of the district to meet the academic objectives in the 2013 recovery plan and the 2016 amended plan. Graduation rates and standardized test scores were among the reasons why receivership was necessary.

The receivership was planned to last three years. Here we are, one-third of the way through. What has changed?

“We want to be transparent, and we want everything to be laid out,” Acting Superintendent Chris Celmer said in a school board meeting on Monday.

At the meeting, the district highlighted several changes they said they’ve made:

  • New math and literacy curriculums developed
  • After school enrichment program created
  • Harrisburg Virtual Academy created
  • Moved to one-on-one technology
  • Corrective Action Planning coordinated
  • Implemented internal controls in business office
  • Anti-fraud programs put in place
  • Revised 2019-2020 budget
  • Proposed a structurally balanced 2020-2021 budget
  • Fully audited the 2018-2019 school year
  • Director of Operations position added
  • Ensured employees had proper clearances for 2019-2020 school year
  • Workplace Safety Committee established
  • Sold Woodward property located at 18th and Herr streets

“As a district, I feel we have all come together,” Celmer said. “I’m happy where we are today. We still have a lot to do when you talk about the stability.”

Celmer explained that, moving into the next year, the main focus will be financial stability in the district. They plan to take advantage of historically low interest rates to work on debt restructuring.

He explained, however, the COVID-19 crisis may cause complications with the district’s plan.

“I’m still very concerned about the overall economy and how it impacts our revenues,” Celmer said.

School Board Vice President James Thompson doesn’t believe finances, strictly speaking, have been the district’s issue in the past, but rather the organization and how the money is used. He supports the efforts made by Samuels and Celmer, but sees education as a higher priority.

“I’m very concerned about the academic performance of our kids,” he said. “I have no hope that the academics are going to improve.”

Jody Barksdale, president of the teachers’ union, the Harrisburg Education Association, has recognized changes to the curriculum. She pointed out that the school has implemented a new English Language Arts (ELA) program and expanded their “Eureka Math” curriculum to include K-8th grades.

“I’ve seen changes in the actual curriculum,” Barksdale said. “It’s hard to say if it’s working. It takes time.”

In Thompson’s opinion, there’s no time for waiting.

“I’m optimistic, but chop-chop, let’s go,” he said. “There have been two generations of kids that passed through the district with horrific results.”

Overall, both Barksdale and Thompson are pleased with the new leadership under state receivership.

“I think we are in much better shape,” Thompson said. “Now let’s get some results.”

Of course, results have been difficult to get for the past couple of months in a time when schools are focused on learning how to function during a pandemic. Celmer highlighted achievements made during the crisis.

The district developed a continuity of education plan, secured technology devices for students, reworked graduation plans and implemented a “grab-and-go” food program.

The school board also proposed a 2020-21 academic year budget of $158.2 million on Monday night. This is a slight increase from the proposed budget in May, but there is no deficit. One-time CARES Act funding filled the $4.2 million gap, leaving the district with a balanced budget. There will still be no tax increase this year.

On June 22, a final decision on a 2020-21 spending plan is expected.

Throughout the transitions in administration and changes due to the crisis, Barksdale is happy with the management and oversight the district is providing.

“They’ve done a wonderful job communicating with, helping and guiding teachers,” she said. We’ve felt like we are working together as a team.”

Celmer expressed a similar gratitude for teamwork. While improvements have been made, he recognizes there are still two more years worth of work needed.

“I’m not satisfied with where we are at, but I’m pleased,” he said.

For more information, visit the Harrisburg School District’s website.

 

 

 

 

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