It's usually hard to get a general consensus when dozens of people speak at a public forum.
But there was a theme during the at times insightful, dramatic, personal and always passionate public comments Thursday at the York City schools advisory committee forum.
The consensus: Give our schools another chance.
David Meckley, the Chief Recovery Officer overseeing what is one of the most important periods in York City School District's history, moderated a packed public hearing Thursday night at Martin Memorial Library. Meckley was hired by the state to draft a plan to get the district out of "moderate financial recovery" and oversee a 20-person advisory committee that will help him come up with ideas. The plan could lead to a dramatic, sweeping change in the district, one the state has the power to see enacted.
Thursday was the second public forum. And this time, unlike the first go-round, details are now known about options the committee and in particular Meckley are considering to improve York City's academics, safety, and fiscal well-being. The result was a much more pointed running commentary from the public.
The two options, for those catching up:
Charter option: Convert the district to all charters, preferably run by nonprofits. The advisory committee got a presentation on Wednesday about the Renaissance Model of charter conversions, used in Philadelphia. Meckley said Thursday the model takes poor performing schools and gets a committee to choose a charter company to overhaul it. So far, the academic and disciplinary results have been impressive, he said.
Under this model, the district would essentially just be a shell to levy taxes and make sure charters are living up to performance standards; sports teams would still be playing for the York City Bearcats, Meckley said. But by using the district's own buildings, there could be savings that they don't get when the district is paying charter tuition to its existing charters such as New Hope Academy or Thackston Middle School.
Transformation: The "transformation" model, which essentially means York City Superintendent Deborah Wortham and her administration would get a chance to solve York City's woes on their own. They've presented a plan, drafted along with the teachers' union, to restructure salaries and convert its schools to magnet schools. Magnet schools have themes and would allow students to attend schools around the district, not just in their neighborhood, to help with student retention. York City has lost thousands of students in the past five to seven years, mostly to charters.
"I think it woke our teachers up. I think it woke our parents up," school board member James Morgan said in support of the in-house model.
"We need to give Dr. Wortham a chance," added Davis Elementary teacher Donna James.
No consolidation: A third previously considered option, consolidating with neighboring districts, is off the table, Meckley said, because it would take too long and a district would have to want to take on York City's debt, which is growing by the millions each year. The public comments Thursday, which included parents, taxpayers, city officials, teachers, and a student, weren't so much in favor of going with the Door Number Two choice of the transformation model as much as they were against charter schools, specifically for-profit charters.
Most of York City's charter schools, with the exception of York Academy Regional Charter School, are run by for-profits that take in a management fee. Charter schools get funded by public tax dollars and are open to the public but operate independently.
William Penn Senior High School counselor John Moroney listed poorly run charters he's seen around the region, and worries what would happen if York City's fate were left to one big outside company.
"If you had the entire district in a charter school, and they come and get frustrated and leave, what will happen?" Moroney asked. Meckley assured him there could be several charters used.
Jason Lewis, head of school at Logos Academy private school in York City, said he wanted to hear more talk about breaking up concentrations of poverty to get to the core of the district's problem. Going all charter could increase concentrations of poverty, he said, with further segregation of students.
Meckley responded that either the all-charter or transformation model should slowly disperse poverty by making the district more attractive, which brings in new families and raises property values.
Blunt comments: York City resident and mother April Murray had a more blunt commentary. While she thinks more needs to be done to tell the community of the good things going on in the schools, she's also not confident the administration and staff will fulfill the promises of the transformation model.
"I'm gonna be honest with you, I don't trust you. I think you just want to save your job," she said. "I ain't here for adults. Adults can take care of themselves. I'm here for the kids."
Some misinformation floated around the meeting, too. One speaker cited at length the underwhelming track record of Renaissance Academy charter school in Phoenixville, but Meckley pointed out it is not the same thing as the Renaissance Model in Philadelphia school district, a separate entity with better performance.
Others said they had heard Meckley already had his mind made up to go with all charters and that the whole thing is fixed. Meckley said that assumption may have been because something had been taken out of context, but that he's still working on all ideas.
"I have said, this is where I am at this point in time," he said of the confusion. He did say, though, that the district staff has not yet supplied enough information to prove their model would fix district finances, although that information is expected to be ready in a week. So analysis is tough, he said.
Meckley, using the committee's input, will need to have his plan ready by April 17, with the school board expected to vote May 15.
"If not one of these two options, then what?" Meckley said. "I'm not sure any of these two are perfect ... but if we do nothing, we know exactly where that's headed."
Any of the ideas would not necessarily kick in right away, as it could be a several year process. But York City will have to comply with whatever plan is approved or the state will make them comply with a state-appointed receiver.
More information is available at www.ycsdrecoveryplan.org.
- Reach Andrew Shaw at firstname.lastname@example.org