After weeks of heated discussion, the Harrisburg school board voted 5-4 to hire attorney James Ellison as the district’s in-house solicitor during a special meeting on Monday evening.
Board members Ellis Roy, Lola Lawson, Patricia Whitehead-Myers, Lionel Gonzalez and board President Danielle Robinson voted to hire Ellison, while members Judd Pittman, Carrie Fowler, Joseph Brown and Brian Carter voted against.
Technically, Carter refused to cast a vote, so Robinson recorded his response as a no.
“We already voted on it,” Carter said, referring to a meeting last week. “We already voted once, so why are we here tonight? Why are we having this meeting tonight? There’s no reason that we should be sitting up here tonight.”
Indeed, the resolution to hire Ellison was considered at last week’s regular board meeting, when it failed by a single vote. After the official voting ended last week, Gonzalez asked to change his “no” vote to a “yes,” a request that was denied.
Gonzalez later said that he was confused by the procedure, so cast the wrong vote. The result was Monday’s special meeting so the board could vote again.
Pittman and Fowler tried to nominate the district’s current solicitor, Samuel Cooper, who works through his law firm, Dilworth Paxson LLP. Cooper declined the nomination, as he did at the previous meeting.
The appointment of Ellison as in-house solicitor has been controversial between board members and the community. Ellison served as general counsel for the district from 1997-99 and again in 2001-05. He also worked with the Coatesville Area School District, but parted ways following a lawsuit that claimed that he over-billed the district and gave them inappropriate advice.
During public comment preceding the vote, some community members expressed their support for Ellison, citing that he lives in the city, sent his children to Harrisburg schools and even worked for many community members personally.
Jody Barksdale, president of the Harrisburg Education Association, outlined what she considered to be both the pros and cons of hiring Ellison. She noted that Ellison lives in the city and helped elect former Mayor Linda Thompson. However, she also had concerns over his work in Coatesville, his overdue school taxes and alleged parking fees in the city.
“I’m looking for good reasons to hire this man because I believe we need to keep our taxpayer’s money in the city,” Barksdale told the board. “I don’t think tonight is the right time to choose who that is.”
Fowler expressed concerns with the outcome, saying she didn’t believe the process to hire Ellison was fair. According to Fowler, the board interviewed two candidates, and Ellison was allowed to bring character witnesses and the other candidate did not.
On the other hand, Lawson claimed she was weary of what she described as “witch hunts” in the community and said there was a difference in skill levels between the candidates.
“In terms of the controversy that’s all around him (Ellison), I take that to heart, and I think that’s important,” Lawson said. “But I did not let that be my deciding factor.”
After voting on Ellison, the board turned to another hot-button issue—a financial audit of the district by the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
Both Pittman and Fowler asked to amend the agenda to discuss the issue, but Robinson said it was already being dealt with. According to Robinson, the board has an executive session scheduled for April 23 to discuss the issue, and the district will meet with the department the next day.
After a community member expressed his disapproval with the district’s decision not to comply with the state’s audit demands, Acting Business Manager Bilal Hasan addressed what he called “misinformation” about the request. Hasan said the district has complied with the request but declined a request to grant direct access to its eFinance database.
“Just because you talk about and scream doesn’t mean it’s the truth,” Hasan said. “The truth is that we gave them the information. They’re asking for access to the database.”