The future of York City schools got clearer and murkier all at once at Wednesday's financial recovery committee meeting.
On the clearer side, the financial picture came into view for the two options being considered by the committee that would transform the district. On the murkier side, new ideas were tossed into the mix and flaws in existing options were pointed out.
The 20-person committee is helping state-appointed Chief Recovery Officer David Meckley craft a recommendation for the York City School District's future. The district was placed on moderate financial recovery status, and is facing a drastic overhaul to improve its finances, academics, and safety, particularly in the next five years. Whatever Meckley recommends will likely be approved and implemented, either by the school board or by the state's taking legal action.
Wednesday's meeting mostly focused on how two options would work financially:
* Charter school conversion: All the district's schools would be converted into charter schools, operated independently by one or more charters, either nonprofit or for-profit. The district would handle the money, but the schools would be run as the charters see fit. Nearly all district employees would be furloughed and essentially have to interview for their own job again with the charter.
Existing charters in York City have been taking enrollment by the hundreds each school year, so the hope is to make the district's own charters attractive enough to lure students back into the district and slow down the tuition payments to outside charters.
And York City would get to pay a charter conversion school less per student in tuition than they do for regular charters, Meckley said.
Meckley said any charter that did not meet performance criteria after being given a chance to fix itself would lose its charter, and another charter company would be brought in. He added that a group of administrators and teachers could, feasibly, apply to be one of the charters, although they'd be doing so independently and not as York City staff.
* Internal Transformation: The district would get another chance to prove it is turning things around. It would expand Ferguson K-8 school's Science, Technology, Engineering and Math magnet theme, and turn Davis K-8 school into a performing arts magnet theme. Magnet schools take in students from their regular attendance zone plus outside students; York City would add seven teachers to help with the magnet themed schools.
Also, the district would add six preschool teachers to help improve early childhood education. All told, the 13 teachers would add $830,000 to the payroll in salary and benefits. But, to help balance that, the model also includes pay cuts and increased benefit contributions all around.
Financially, either option could be viable, according to independent financial consultants PFM.
But there's a "but": Either option can work, but it really requires hundreds and hundreds of students to come back to York City within five years on top of the existing 4,800 enrollment, PFM said.
Without increased enrollment, there are consequences: * Charter school conversion: Continued decreasing district enrollment means the district couldn't afford to pay as much per student in tuition to a charter conversion company. While that might seem good from a taxpayer perspective, it can make it difficult to attract top-flight nationwide companies. Meckley said they are checking on how high the tuition would need to be to attract top suitors.
* Internal transformation: All district staff would be getting annual pay cuts over the next five years in any transformation scenario. But with a worst case scenario of continued enrollment drops, the pay cuts are much worse, as high as 5.8 percent to 17.5 percent in the first year, with administrators getting the worst cut, to about 6.3 percent for everyone the second year.
The salary cuts would be much less severe if York City could attract students back to the district. PFM advised the recovery committee that it's not fair to think any staff could keep asking employees to make less and less and have them stay.
Even with both models working at their best, PFM still thinks York City schools will need a court-approved loan of about $11 million to get out of their deficit in the next two years. But within three years, the budget would be balanced in either model.
Teachers against it: So if either is financially viable, are they academically acceptable or what the community wants? That's where the fork hit the road at the 3-1/2-hour meeting, held at Davis.
Meckley said he plans on making his recommendation public by May 2, with time for additional public input before a final version is done May 15.
In the meantime, he heard another round of criticism of his direction with the committee. The teachers' union and some teachers repeated past concerns that they believe Meckley has long decided he wants York City to convert to all charters. He was also accused by teachers of making advance closed-door deals with some local nonprofit charters, including with Dennis Baughman, board president at York Academy Regional Charter School and a recovery committee member.
Meckley denounced all of those accusations.
"I've repeatedly said a deal has not been made," Meckley said.
Baughman backed him up, saying "There's no deal struck," while Meckley said he has had conversations with many groups, but only to gauge interest on whether any of them would be interested in pursuing something further should the committee decide to go down a certain path.
"That's part of my job to look for possibilities. I don't think that's inappropriate," Meckley said.
Other ideas add to mix: McKinley K-8 principal Keith Still, a recovery committee member, suggested the committee consider the idea of blending the two options. Let city schools have a few years to try it their way, and if that doesn't work - specifically, if they don't hit performance criteria -- then do the charter conversions.
That idea is a possibility, Meckley said, although it didn't appear to be a formal option at the end of the meeting.
The York NAACP chairwoman, Sandra Thompson, recommended the committee consider a national Safer, Saner Schools model that has had positive effects in Philadelphia schools by getting students to confront their unacceptable behavior.
Charter conversions, she added, won't fix the underlying problems with students. Meckley said the Safer, Saner Schools idea will be investigated.
The committee next meets April 24, and will have upcoming meetings at William Penn Senior High School to make them more convenient for the public. Public input will now be sought at the end of each meeting, Meckley said.
-- Reach Andrew Shaw at firstname.lastname@example.org