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State Department of Education petitions court to take control of Harrisburg School District

HARRISBURG — State Secretary of Education Pedro A. Rivera filed a request to the Dauphin County Court of Common Pleas to appoint a receiver to take over t...

HARRISBURG -- State Secretary of Education Pedro A. Rivera filed a request to the Dauphin County Court of Common Pleas to appoint a receiver to take over the Harrisburg School District, the State Department of Education announced Monday.

In the petition, Rivera recommended that the court appoint Dr. Janet Samuels, the current chief recovery officer, as receiver.

When a receiver is appointed, they take operational control of the district, assuming all the powers and duties of the CRO and the board of school directors, except the power to levy and raise taxes, the Department of Education said in a press release.

The court now has seven days to hold a hearing on the matter, and must grant or deny Rivera's petition within 10 days, the department says.

If the court approves the petition, the judge at that time will either accept the Department of Education's recommendation for a receiver, name another individual, or direct the department to submit an alternative appointment.

A receivership is granted for a three-year period, but the secretary of education can petition the court for additional three-year extensions, the department said.

Harrisburg School District has been in financial recovery status since December 2012. Rivera named Dr. Samuels as the chief recovery officer last fall.

Two other Pennsylvania school districts, Duquesne City and Chester-Upland, are currently in receivership, the department press release said.

Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse, said he was pleased with the petition filed Monday.

He said receivership for the Harrisburg School District is "absolutely necessary," citing in-fighting within the school board that has failed to bring academic progress, fill key personnel positions, and promote transparency and accountability.

“We have the desire to improve that, we have the resources to improve that. We just all need to work together and I think receivership will help focus our attention on doing what we need to do, which is prepare our students for being competitive in the academic environment," said Mayor Papenfuse.

Harrisburg Education Association president Jody Barksdale issued the following statement after news of the Department of Education's petition came out:

“Harrisburg’s students deserve a world class education. As hardworking educators, we come to school every day ready to help our students succeed. Unfortunately, because of a long-standing lack of leadership from the district and school board, there are many problems in our school district that we simply can’t solve alone.

“We are disappointed that it has come to this, but we recognize that the state’s decision to put Harrisburg schools in receivership has become unavoidable. It is stunning to think that Harrisburg is in worse financial condition today than it was when it entered financial recovery.

“Dr. Janet Samuels has been working to address these challenges since she was appointed chief recovery officer last fall. HEA members look forward to continuing to work with her to make Harrisburg schools the best they can be.

“Our top priority always is to prepare our students for a bright future. We are hopeful that receivership will finally provide us with the leadership our school district needs to ensure every student gets the education they deserve and has a bright future awaiting them after graduation.”

Barksdale is president of the 500-member Harrisburg Education Association, an affiliate of the Pennsylvania State Education Association.

Lauri Lebo with the PSEA said they had hoped the decision could've waited until after the newly-elected school board could've taken over at the end of the year.

“Unfortunately, the state decided this was not something that they could wait for," said Lebo.

Papenfuse said this decision from the state is in line with Harrisburg voters in a push for "change."

“Now, this new school board, which is just been elected will get proper training, proper resources to be able to eventually receive the reigns of power back after receivership ends," said Papenfuse.

Lebo said she is hopeful receivership will, at least, put an end to the mismanagement and financial disarray within the district.

She added they want a number of changes to come forward, including ways to end the high rate of teacher turnover in the district, which she said it at a "crisis point."

“These are tough choices for our teachers and for our members because they’ve had to make choices between the kids in the classroom, who they love and they want to continue working with and the financial wellbeing of their own family. They shouldn’t have to make these choices," said Lebo.

Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale issued the following statement:

“The district has been under state-imposed financial recovery status since 2012 and it’s unfortunate that this next step has become necessary. It’s become very clear that dysfunction within the Harrisburg school district must end because the district’s students and taxpayers deserve better.”

DePasquale said he continues to review additional options involving the district, which is currently being audited by the Department of Education.

“I believe that some level of independent oversight is critical to the district’s financial recovery and I’ll be exploring additional steps in the near future."

State Representative Patty Kim (D-Dauphin County) issued the following statement:

“I will work hard to ensure that the newly elected school board members and community will continue to have a say in their school district’s operations. We need the receiver and school board to have a strong working relationship to ensure the plan is executed successfully,” Kim said. “Dr. Janet Samuels has already established ties within the local school district, ensuring that no one has to wait for another look at how important the recovery plan is and allowing us to move forward quickly, with minimal classroom interruptions. Dr. Samuels has my full endorsement. Changes were needed in the Harrisburg School District, and I know that by working hard together, we can take the Harrisburg School District to a unified and stronger future for our children and generations to come.”

A request for comment from the Harrisburg School District was not answered at the time of publication.