The committee that controls the fate of the York City School District got a bird's-eye view of the district at its first meeting Wednesday.
For members of the 20 person financial recovery committee, made up of stakeholders in York City and beyond, it was their first chance to see just how much work they have ahead of them.
As charged by the state after York City schools were placed in moderate financial recovery status, the committee must come up with ideas to get city schools on firmer financial footing while enriching the educational experience.
Those ideas will be taken by state-appointed Chief Recovery Officer David Meckley, paid by the state to draft a plan for the school board to vote on, likely in April.
As of now, the slate is clean. There are no preconceived ideas, Meckley told the committee, contrary to what some might think about the state's intentions.
"There is no answer (yet)," Meckley said.
The answer, though, eventually will need to involve a sound educational program, keeping students healthy and safe, and be financially viable, he said. The committee, which is meeting in the district's administration building regularly for the next few months, can come with whatever ideas it wants to make that happen.
Here's what the committee faces, as laid out by the district administration:
* York City receives much less real estate tax revenue per student than any other York County school district, and also has more than 90 percent of students coming from low-income families, double that of the next-closest district (Hanover).
* Student enrollment is nose-diving. In 2007, York City has 6,170 students. As of this January, they have 4,801, a 22 percent decrease.
* Charter school enrollment in that same period? Up about 33 percent, with about 2,435 students now in charter schools. The district pays about $28 million in charter school tuition, extremely higher than any neighboring district.
"What we know is the parents of 1,400 students have opted out of the School District of the City of York since 2007," Meckley said.
* The district switched to a K-8 model this year.
* One student in five is in special education, and one student in four speaks a language other than English as a primary language, known as English Language Learners. Those figures, both higher than what most districts have, add to academic difficulties and the need to have more staff.
* The district has $136 million in debt, and a net value of $143 million, meaning it almost owes more than it is worth, although the district does now have newly renovated elementaries that can help attract families.
* The district has a $4 million deficit this school year, although the state has said it may help in order to avoid disruptions.
The charter school issue drew the most attention from committee members. Some said the district needs to do a better job marketing what it does well to counteract charter school ads. Others, including school board president Margie Orr and York Suburban Superintendent Kate Orban, took issue with for-profit charters taking city taxpayer money.
And others offered some insight on where they hope this committee, which is blazing its own trail as this hasn't been done before, goes in the next few months.
Michael Johnson, chairman of the York City planning commission, said he hopes the committee sets the bar at getting York City on a par with the suburban school districts, not just a lower bar of comparable urban districts such as Lancaster or Chester-Upland.
And Michael Thew, the director of the Lincoln Intermediate Unit that provides special-education services to York City and others, said he was a little nervous about the direction of the group before it met. But that's mostly because he wants to see how the state will support York City.
"What I'm hoping is there is enough flexibility that they give this group a chance ... and not expect things overnight," Thew said.
The committee next meets Feb. 13, when it will hear more overviews and presentations. A public hearing will be held at 6 p.m. Feb. 4 at the administration building, at which time comments from the community will be permitted.
Reach Andrew Shaw at firstname.lastname@example.org.