Attorney: Appeal already filed in York City receivership case

Erin James and Nickelle Snader
The York Dispatch

Editor's note: This article was originally published Dec. 26, 2014.

Control of the York City School District will transfer to a state appointee following a York County judge's ruling Friday granting a state petition for receivership.

The decision of President Judge Stephen P. Linebaugh gives all but taxing power to a Spring Garden Township man who has steered the district's financial recovery process for two years.

David Meckley, who has an extensive business background, has served as the district's chief recovery officer for two years. His tenure started after the state placed York City in moderate financial recovery status.

Marc Tarlow, representing the York City school district, said he filed an appeal to Linebaugh's decision on Friday morning. The district is reviewing the decision and preparing for the appeal process, which could take a few months if it's not expedited through the court system, Tarlow said.

More power: Linebaugh's decision to appoint Meckley as receiver for the next three years as receiver significantly elevates Meckley's influence over the district.

For the past several months, Meckley has advocated for a full conversion of the district's eight schools to operation by a for-profit charter company called Charter Schools USA.

District teachers, parents and students have been vigorously opposed.

But in his decision, Linebaugh emphasized that his ruling could only be made about whether the state's petition lacked clear evidence to show it would improve the district's financial stability.

Not a charter decision: Linebaugh's interpretation of state law does not allow him to make further rulings about whether the effects of the receivership -- such as a district-wide conversion to charter schools -- would be "the best plan or even a good plan for the district," Linebaugh wrote in the decision.

According to state law, Linebaugh must grant the receivership unless opposing parties, in this case the district and the teachers union, can show "clear and convincing evidence" that the state's petition is "arbitrary, capricious or wholly irrelevant" to restoring financial stability in the district.

In the decision, Linebaugh said Meckley's testimony was credible.

"His testimony on the issues of the financial aspects of the district and the reasonableness of the plan in restoring the district to financial stability was precise, clear, direct and convincing," Linebaugh wrote.

Meckley could not immediately be reached for comment.

District appeal: The acting secretary of education, Carolyn Dumaresq, has "full confidence" in Meckley to be the receiver because of his thorough involvement with the district for the past two years, said Tim Eller, spokesman for the state Department of Education.

Meckley won't be barred from any of his responsibilities the district receiver, such as signing a contract with Charter Schools USA, unless a stay is granted in the court system during the appeals process, Eller said.

The district believes the appeal itself includes the motion for that stay, Tarlow said. The stay would prevent Meckley from officially becoming the receiver until the appeals process is finished.

Both Tarlow and Eller said they were unsure of the timeline for that process, since the receivership process isn't common in Pennsylvania. But Linebaugh will also likely rule on the merit of a stay in the appeals process, Eller said.

The state will likely provide an answer to the district's appeal in the next few days, Eller said.

Teacher reaction: The teachers union, the third party in the case, also plans to appeal Linebaugh's decision, said Bruce Riek, president of the union.

"I'm disappointed and scared for the future of this district," Riek said.

But returning to school on Jan. 5 after the holiday break will be "business as usual," Riek said, adding that students should be focused on learning and teachers should be focused on their classrooms.

"That's what it always has been about and what it needs to be," he said.

But the teachers and staff within the district won't give up on advocating for their students and for the district as a whole, he said.

"We are not going to let them down," he said.

Plan all along: The judge's decision was "disappointing" to Clovis Gallon, a teacher in the district and father to three children attending York City schools.

"I've felt as though, following all the events that led to where we are now, that this is the plan David Meckley had all along."

Linebaugh cited several elements in the district's recovery plan that were not followed despite Meckley's encouragement to do so, including signing a teachers contract with several concessions and providing building improvement plans to Meckley.

But Meckley didn't follow several of the recovery plan steps himself, Gallon said, and painted a financial picture that's worse than the one the district is actually facing.

Gallon said part of his concern about Meckley is his publicized plan to convert the district to charter schools. But Gallon also has concerns about Meckley's statements that he cares about the education of York City students.

"That's not what I see," Gallon said. "I don't think that's his primary concern."

Court arguments: Linebaugh's decision to approve receivership makes York City the third district in the state to have a receiver, joining Duquesne City and Chester Upland.

York City, however, is the only district facing a full conversion to charter schools.

Before the state filed its petition, Meckley had directed the school board to approve a contract with Charter Schools USA on Nov. 19. But the board tabled the matter.

Meckley has characterized the plan as a way to improve education in the academically struggling district.

Attorneys for the district had argued the state's petition was unconstitutional and illegal for a lengthy list of reasons.

For example, the attorneys alleged a state takeover would violate federal funding laws, the Pennsylvania Constitution, the state's Charter School Law and the Pennsylvania Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act.