York City School District's fate will start to be delineated Thursday when members of its financial recovery committee reveal their individual preferences for the district's future.
"It's time now to put words into actions. No more excuses," said Margie Orr, a committee and school board member.
The committee is aiding state-appointed Chief Recovery Officer David Meckley as he crafts a recommendation to fix city schools' financial, academic and safety shortfalls.
The two options are converting to all charter schools starting in the 2014-15 school year, or allowing the district to do an immediate internal transformation using ideas such as salary cuts, the addition of pre-kindergarten classes, and the creation of themed magnet schools.
But York isn't the only Pennsylvania district in this position.
Harrisburg, Chester-Upland, and Reading school districts are all in various stages of the financial recovery process set forth by the Department of Education last year as a way to turn around each district with a structured, state-approved model.
Harrisburg and York City were placed in "moderate" financial recovery primarily because they needed to borrow money at some point from the state to make ends meet. The
state appointed each district a chief recovery officer to come up with a plan for the school board to vote on. If the plan is rejected, the two sides can try to come to an agreement, but eventually the state could move to appoint a receiver who could mandate the plan be used.
The district gets out of the moderate financial recovery status only after showing it has addressed its issues over the course of years.
Reading School District is only in "financial watch" status and at this point is just getting support from the state, according to Department of Education spokesman Tim Eller.
Chester-Upland is on the other end of the spectrum. It is already in a receivership, meaning its school board, unlike York City and Harrisburg, didn't have a say in what plan was used. Chester-Upland's plan involved, among other things, raising taxes, cutting staff, consolidating schools, and setting firm academic goals, according to the district.
Closest comparison: That makes Harrisburg the closest apples-to-apples comparison for York City families trying to get some context for what their district is doing.
The Harrisburg School District Chief Recovery Officer Gene Veno unveiled his plan last week. York City's Meckley will be doing the same at 6 p.m. May 15, with the location yet to be confirmed.
In Harrisburg's case, Veno proposed:
---Cutting the overall budget for staff salaries by 5 percent,
---Switching from K-8 to the traditional elementary and middle school approach,
---Finding private funding for the arts program,
---Hiring a grant writer and a chief executive officer so the superintendent can focus more on academics,
---Selling off unused buildings,
---Getting a $6 million interest-free loan from the state,
---Creating parent groups for each building; York City is considering a similar idea for either option,
---Implementing a 3.5 percent tax hike next year (half of what Harrisburg had proposed), and staying at the state limit for three years after that.
Harrisburg has a $14.4 million deficit for next school year, according to the latest budget estimate.
"If we don't take a road to reformation by 2015, there may not be a district," Veno said of Harrisburg's financial straits.
Veno said "embracing change" needs to be the focus. Harrisburg's school board has 30 days from last week to make a decision. Veno said he's working on getting teachers on board. Regardless of what is ultimately decided, Veno said the status quo is not an option.
York City schools, while facing the same financial recovery process, are facing different challenges. Veno said Harrisburg doesn't have the same enrollment loss to brick-and-mortar charter schools, a plight that has pillaged York City classrooms by hundreds of students a year.
Cyber schools do take lots of Harrisburg students, Veno said, and so his plan includes expanding the district's cyber program. Converting schools to charters was part of the overall discussion in the recovery committee, Veno added, but not heavily pursued.
York City's situation: In York City's case, the charter expansion or the internal transformation option are both tied to the need to bring back students from charter schools by offering a safer, higher performing school within the district.
Charter schools can be for profit or nonprofit. In York City, New Hope, Lincoln, and Thackston are for-profit, and the companies running them get a management fee, while YouthBuild and York Academy Regional Charter School are nonprofit. Whether it's for profit or nonprofit, a charter school is funded using tax dollars, but operates independently. The York City recovery committee had indicated it would prefer a nonprofit charter company if the district chooses that option.
Meckley, who was not immediately available for comment, has repeatedly said he has not made up his mind what he'll choose to recommend in two weeks.
Orr, who serves as school board president, said she is looking forward to having the community come out again to William Penn Senior High School and this time finally hear what the committee has to say. Each member's vote, cast last weekend, will be made public, and there will be a discussion as well.
"It's really important for the community to know who they have with them, who is supporting our public school system," Orr said.
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