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State files petition to place Harrisburg school district into receivership

The Harrisburg school district Administration Building

The state Department of Education today took a first step towards putting the Harrisburg school district into receivership, meaning the district soon could come under the direct control of a state-appointed receiver.

Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera petitioned the Dauphin County Court of Common Pleas to place the troubled district into receivership, recommending appointing Dr. Janet Samuels as receiver, according to a department press release.

Samuels is currently the district’s state-appointed chief recovery officer (CRO), a position she assumed last year.

“When a receiver is appointed, the individual takes operational control of the district, assuming all the power and duties of the CRO and the board of school directors, except the power to levy and raise taxes,” according to the press release.

Judge William Tully has scheduled a hearing on Friday at 1:30 p.m. He then has 10 days to grant or deny receivership. The judge can either accept the department’s recommendation of a receiver or name an alternative.

The district has been in “financial recovery” since December 2012, and Samuels is one of a succession of CROs over that time.

The CRO, the school administration and the school board were supposed to work together to improve the district academically and forge a financial recovery plan. However, school taxes are now about to rise for two consecutive years, and the district has not shown substantial academic improvement.

Moreover, the district administration increasingly has been under fire for over-hiring faculty, for controversial appointments and for shuffling around principals, among other issues.

In a primary election two weeks ago, Harrisburg voters rejected every incumbent on the ballot, instead nominating five challengers for seats on the city school board, all of whom promised substantial oversight and reform of the district.

Local officials expressed a range of reactions to the news of a possible receivership for the district.

Current board Director Carrie Fowler said that she was “highly disappointed” by the move.

“I can honestly say that I am not surprised by their decision, but was hoping for a different outcome,” she said. “Losing local control of our public school system is silencing the community that clearly stated loud and clear on May 21 they wanted a change.”

Director Judd Pittman described the state’s decision to seek receivership as “a bit of a mixed bag.”

“We’re talking about removing local control, especially after the last election. However, a lot can happen between now and December,” he said, referencing the fact that the new board won’t be seated for six months, meaning that the existing school board would make decisions until then.

For instance, the board would need to approve a contract for newly hired district solicitor James Ellison. The board is also awaiting the results of a state-mandated financial audit of the district.

For the state, the final straw may have come last week, when the administration terminated the contract of the district’s interim human resources director, leaving that crucial department without leadership just days before a major faculty recruiting event, Pittman said.

“She was putting necessary processes into place, and we got rid of her,” he said.

Mayor Eric Papenfuse was fully supportive of the state’s move.

“I want to thank Gov. Wolf and Secretary Rivera for making this difficult but necessary decision,” he said. “I believe receivership will allow the Harrisburg school district to address its many systemic problems and provide brighter futures for the next generation of city youth.”

If the court grants the petition, this would not be the first time the Harrisburg district found itself in a form of receivership. In 2000, the state placed the district under the control of former Mayor Steve Reed and an appointed Board of Control. That arrangement ended in 2010, leading to the hiring of current Superintendent Sybil Knight-Burney.

Currently, only two districts in the state are under receivership–the Duquesne city and Chester-Upland school districts, according to the state DOE.

This story has been updated with comments from local officials.

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