Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

School Board can’t un-do action on superintendent contract, solicitor says.

A recent attempt by the Harrisburg school board to reverse action on the superintendent’s contract does not stand under state law, district officials announced today.

Following a judgement from its solicitor, the board must now continue its search for a new superintendent, board president Judd Pittman said this morning.

Sitting superintendent Sybil Knight-Burney may participate in that search process if she wishes to keep her job. Her contract with the district expires on June 30.

Pittman welcomed the solicitor’s decision, saying it offered clarity for a board that has been tensely divided over Knight-Burney’s tenure.

“We need to have a clean break so we can start our search,” Pittman said in an interview last week.

The board voted in March to open a search for a new superintendent, but then rescinded that vote in a surprise action earlier this month.

Board Solicitor Samuel Cooper determined that the attempt to rescind the March vote conflicted with Pennsylvania School Code, which requires boards to take action on superintendent contracts at least 90 days before they expire. Before that deadline, the board must either notify the sitting superintendent that her contract will be renewed for a period of 3-5 years, or that other candidates will be considered for her job.

If the board fails to act before the deadline passes, the superintendent’s contract is automatically renewed for a one-year period.

Some board directors – including Tyrell Spradley, who motioned to rescind the March vote – believed that nullifying the board’s action from March would result in a one-year contract extension for Knight-Burney.

But Cooper’s reading of school code determined that the some of the options before the board were mutually exclusive. When the board chose to act before the 90-day notification deadline, it eliminated the possibility of a one-year contract extension.

However, the decision to launch a superintendent search does not prevent the board from offering Knight-Burney another three to five-year contract. They may do so if she participates in the search process and emerges as the best candidate, or if they decide to abandon the search all together in favor of retaining her for another term.

An expert on school code questioned the board’s rescission vote in an interview last week, offering an interpretation of school code that was consistent with Cooper’s ruling.

“An attempt to rescind that after the deadline has passed is of questionable validity,” said Stuard Knade, chief legal counsel at the Pennsylvania School Board Association. “You can’t un-ring that bell.”

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