Recovery plan for Harrisburg schools revealed

After a few of months of looking at ways to turn around the struggling Harrisburg School District, the chief recovery officer unveiled his plan Friday, calling for tax increases and wage cuts.

The plan deals with both financial and academic issues the district is facing.

Gene Veno, who was appointed by the state late last year, stressed the urgency of adopting the five-year plan. He said though the plan looks out to 2018, the next three years are critical.

“Why do I say three years? Because if the financial path of this district continues the way it has been for the last five years, there will be no district in the third year,” said Veno.

To view the plan in its entirety, click here. To view a summary prepared by the recovery officer, click here.

Veno said if nothing changes, the district’s deficit will grow from $14.4 million in 2013-2014 to $131.4 million in 2017-2018.

Among some of the steps outlined in the plan:

-A 3.5 percent increase in property taxes next year. That amounts to $9.49 per $10,000 of assessed value, Veno said. In the next three fiscal years, the increase would be capped at the Act 1 index amount and then held flat the next year.

-A 5 percent wage reduction for employees next year and the following year. In the third year, there would be a salary freeze. In the next two years, wages would increase again, 1.5 percent and then 3.5 percent in the fifth year. No educators would be furloughed.

-Reconfiguring the K-8 schools such that grades K-4 would be in separate buildings from grades 5-8. The K-4 schools would be: Downing, Benjamin Franklin, Melrose, Foose and Scott. The 5-8 schools would be: Camp Curtin, Marshall and Roland.

-Hiring a CEO to handle the business side of the administration while the superintendent is left to focus on academics.

-Placing more focus on college and career training in earlier years.

-Improving and expanding the district’s cyber school.

The leader of the Harrisburg Education Association, which represents teachers, pointed out with past cuts to staff it could be difficult to attract more quality teachers to the district if the proposed cuts are implemented.

“We have already given so much, with the wage freezes, with the furloughs,” said Sherri Magnuson, HEA president.

The school board is not obligated to implement the plan by the letter, Veno said, adding there is room for negotiations.

The plan also addresses the district’s long-term debt, which Veno said hadn’t been adequately addressed in light of the challenge of merely balancing the budget year-to-year.

“We, as a district, have been so busy keeping our heads above water that we’ve failed to see the tsunami (as we’ve coined) coming,” said Veno.

If the board adopts the plan within 30 days, the state will give the district a $6.41 million interest-free loan to help implement the changes. If the board delays its decision beyond the 30 days, the money goes away.

If by the end of the year the board does not approve the plan, the district would fall into receivership.

“Twenty years ago, the experts were saying that this was going to happen to urban schools, and no one paid attention. And we all need to get on board,” said school board member Lola Lawson. “And, I think that this is going to work. I really, really do.”