A Dauphin County courthouse let out a collective gasp this morning, as a judge announced that the Harrisburg school district would not contest a petition to place the district under state receivership.
Judge William Tully announced from the bench that the district decided not to challenge the state Department of Education’s takeover of the district, surprising a crowded courtroom, which expected the hearing to last at least a full day.
“I’m shocked, absolutely shocked,” said current school board Director Carrie Fowler, following the announcement. “I thought they were going to fight this.”
Fowler said that, while she initially opposed the state’s move, she now backs receivership for the district.
By every indication, the district seemed prepared to contest the petition filed on June 3 by state Education Secretary Pedro Rivera. Just last Wednesday, district Solicitor James Ellison filed a lengthy response to the petition, offering a point-by-point refutation of the state’s critique of the district and its case for receivership.
The district, however, had a very high bar to reach to successfully battle receivership. It needed to show that the state’s request was “arbitrary, capricious or wholly irrelevant” to restoring the district to financial stability.
In a previous hearing, Tully already had indicated that he believed that the state’s case for receivership was strong.
From the bench, Tully commended the district for its decision. He said that the district and the state now needed to work together to “complete the goals” of the district’s 2013 recovery plan.
“I hereby grant the receivership,” he stated, before banging the gavel and dismissing the courtroom.
Tully still must issue his formal order, in which he may announce the name of the receiver. The state has asked that Dr. Janet Samuels, the current chief recovery officer for the district, be appointed receiver for the district for a three-year period.
Under state law, the elected school board is now stripped of all authority, except the power to levy and raise taxes.
In fact, the Harrisburg school board is in the midst of the budget process for the 2019-20 school year. It was due to pass a final budget by June 30, though it seems now to lack the authority to do so. That budget assumed a property tax increase of 3.4 percent.
It remains to be seen how exactly the receivership will manifest itself, in terms of organization and additional resources that may be made available to the district.
Only two other school districts in Pennsylvania are currently under receivership, Duquesne and Chester-Upland. In Duquesne, the receiver is responsible for all financial, administrative and educational decisions, backed by a 20-person “Receiver Advisory Council” made up of city residents.
Jayne Buchwach, a Democratic nominee for school board, said that she believed that the receivership would take effect immediately. She hoped that the receiver, the administration and the school board now would work together.
“Will it be a cooperative relationship?” she asked. “I hope so. If so, it would make history.”
She also echoed Fowler in her surprise at today’s outcome.
“I’m just stunned, but I do appreciate that the current school board and the administration did not fight this, saving us all a long day in court,” she said. “Now, onto the next chapter.”