Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Samuels named Harrisburg school district receiver; administration pledges cooperation

Harrisburg school district Solicitor James Ellison

A Dauphin County judge has appointed Dr. Janet Samuels as receiver for the Harrisburg school district, giving her broad authority to run the district for the next three years.

Judge William Tully issued an order that Samuels serve as receiver, a three-year appointment requested by the state Department of Education. Samuels has served as the district’s state-appointed chief recovery officer since last year.

In his “Memorandum Opinion,” Judge Tully outlined how the district has failed to meet the academic objectives outlined in the 2013 recovery plan and the 2016 amended plan, thus necessitating the receivership. The district fell far short on a number of measures, including graduation rates and standardized test scores, the opinion states.

The opinion further faults the school board for “failing to comply with the directives issued by the CRO.”

With her appointment, Samuels now is widely empowered to run the district, assuming the roles of both the CRO and the school board. The one power she explicitly lacks is the ability to levy and raise taxes, which remains with the elected school board.

If she chooses, Samuels has the ability to cede some authority back to the board or even appoint an advisory body.

Just before Tully’s order was made public, district Solicitor James Ellison held a hastily arranged press conference at the district’s administration building, during which he emphasized that school administrators, including Superintendent Sybil Knight-Burney, would fully cooperate with the receiver.

Ellison said that the decision to drop the district’s opposition to receivership came last night, at a special, closed-door session of the Harrisburg school board.

“The board of school directors and the superintendent of schools decidedly determined that it is in the best interest of our children if we pivoted our time and energy and resources from litigation to continue cooperation and work collaboratively with the receiver and the secretary to bring about positive educational changes for them,” he said.

Despite Ellison’s statement, school board Director Carrie Fowler said this morning that she did not know of this decision and described herself as “shocked” that the district had dropped its opposition to state receivership.

Samuels is expected to run the regularly scheduled school board meeting tonight. Among other issues, the district still must approve a final budget for the 2019-20 school year. The district, until now, has only approved a preliminary budget, which contains a 3.4-percent property tax increase.

“Dr. Samuels is upstairs as we speak and getting ready for tonight’s board meeting,” Ellison said. “She is the receiver of this district, and our obligation and our duty is to work with her to bring about the positive educational changes that she intends to bring.”

Ellison cited the “failed city takeover” of the district from 2000 to 2010 as a lesson for today, saying that effort proved that stakeholders should cooperate, not be in conflict. The previous receivership, led by former Mayor Steve Reed, yielded little academic progress, but resulted in tremendous financial pain for the district, Ellison said.

At his press conference, Ellison painted a very positive picture of the school system.

“This district has rewarded the trust of many parents, as our city schools have done well by their children and countless others that have personally passed through our schoolhouse doors and gone on to become prominent and productive citizens here and elsewhere,” he said.

Continue Reading