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State Seeks Receivership For Cash-Strapped Harrisburg School District

Vicki Vellios Briner
Harrisburg city residents meet at PA Careerlink to discuss current affairs at Harrisburg School District including the call for receivership from several elected officials, April 29, 2019

The Pennsylvania Department of Education wants to put the financially distressed Harrisburg School District into receivership, a process that appoints one person to manage the district. 

Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera filed a petition for receivership Monday with the Dauphin County Court of Common Pleas.

Rivera recommended Janet Samuels, the district's chief recovery officer, for the receiver position.

A judge will decide whether to approve the petition. The judge also has the power to appoint a receiver other than the one recommended.

The receiver would have "operational control of the district," taking on the responsibilities of the chief recovery officer and the board of directors, the department said in a news release. The receiver would not have the power to levy and raise taxes. 

The move comes after years of struggle for a school district that draws on limited financial resources amid Harrisburg's many tax-exempt properties, said Gene Veno, who served as the district's chief recovery officer until 2015. The state designated the school district as moderately financially distressed in 2012, appointing Veno to the role. 

Compared to the chief recovery officer, a receiver has more flexibility and power to develop a plan and make it happen, Veno said.

"In essence, they will have a free hand to write a plan of action for recovery. And that's the idea of a receiver, is to have a full authority to making decisions from an educational and a financial perspective."

The department's petition comes weeks after a Democratic primary in which four school board members were voted out. With a Democratic victory virtually guaranteed in the November general election, the new faces on the board offered the district a fresh start, albeit one that won't take effect until December, Veno noted.

However, officials wanted faster action. Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse called on the state to file the petition after the Democratic primary.

Democratic state Rep. Patty Kim of Dauphin County also supported the decision.

"I still believe receivership can give the school district a much-needed reboot to help fix our finances and improve student academic success," she said in May.

Dauphin County Court has seven days to hold a hearing and 10 days after that to decide whether to approve the department's request.

If it is approved, the receiver would serve for a three-year term. The state can petition for an extension after that period. 

Duquesne City in Allegheny County and Chester-Upland in Delaware County are currently in receivership.