Amended recovery plan shifts focus to York City district structure

Sean Philip Cotter

Carol Saylor's recovery plan for the York City School District focuses on working within the current system — reform instead of the revolution the previous plan sought.

Carol Saylor, the chief recovery officer for the York City School District’, is shown in her office at the district administration building in York City, Tuesday, March 29, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Saylor, the district's chief recovery officer, authored a revised plan, which the district's school board passed earlier this month. The district administration, school board and union broadly support her approach over that of her predecessor, David Meckley.

Formerly a superintendent in Adams and Lancaster counties, Saylor was appointed to her current position in April 2015 by then newly elected Gov. Tom Wolf, a York County Democrat. Meckley, the previous chief recovery officer, resigned the month before that; appointed by Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, the local businessman had set the district on a path toward full conversion to charter schools, which drew strong community opposition.

The city schools' main issues fall into two broad categories: performance and finance. The position of chief recovery officer is part of state legislation designed to address the latter: to help financially struggling school districts recover. York City is in "moderate" financial recovery status.

But there's also the issue that the district's students are performing poorly. The graduation rate, at just under 82.5 percent, is below the state average, and proficiency levels on statewide standardized tests have languished far below the Pennsylvania average.

Saylor's plan is meant to improve both areas. A new curriculum will take effect next year; the current one wasn't in line with what the state tests for, so this should improve performance on standardized tests, she said.

'Ambitious': The plan lays out some goals Saylor readily calls "ambitious."

For example, only 21 percent of the district's third-graders scored "proficient" in reading on the 2015 PSSA tests, as compared with the statewide average of 62 percent, according to the plan document. The goal under the plan is to completely eliminate that gap, getting more than 40 percent more York City students scoring proficient by the 2018-19 school year.

It's looking to halve the large gaps between York City and statewide average scores for higher grades in reading and math, and bring the high school graduation rates up to the statewide average of around 85.5 percent over that same four-year period.

Along with the updated curriculum making sure classes cover material students will be tested on, established pre-K education programs will be helping more students. The first cohort of kids who participated in the "freshman academy," a program that helps students transition into high school, will be graduating in 2018-19, Saylor said.

That combination of changes, along with focuses on administrative stability and better internal and external communication, should improve the state of York City schools, she said.

"It’s ambitious, but we believe it’s also doable," said school district spokeswoman Erin James.

She said the district's administration was involved "from the get-go" in the crafting of this amended plan, so nothing in it is a surprise to them.

"The district administration is in full support of this plan," James said.

Financial concerns: School board member James Sawor said he broadly supports the amended recovery plan but is a little worried about how it appears to run a deficit for the foreseeable future.

"I'm a little concerned about the financials," he said.

One slide of the plan reads: "If no changes occur or are made, the District is projected to have a recurring annual deficit starting in 2015-16 and a negative fund balance starting in 2018-19."

That means the district is going to spend more than it brings in every year, and the reserves to bridge that gap will run dry in a few years. "However," the plan continues, "in recent years the District has had success in eliminating projected annual deficits."

The amended plan projects the district to run a $1.8 million deficit in the current school year, a budget gap which will grow annually to $7.9 million by the 2018-19 year. That's an improvement to the state of the district when the original plan was written in 2013, when the district was projected to have an annual deficit of more than $17 million by that year.

James said there's no silver bullet for the tenuous financial situation, so the district works on the budgets on a year-to-year basis, making the pieces fit as they will. But, she said, things will be especially tight for the schools until or unless the state provides the district with more money.

"Long story short: We need more resources," James said.

The amended York City School District recovery plan includes a graph of many of the district's priorities plots them by urgency and ease of implementation.

Initatives: Saylor said there's a range of different initiatives that look to help with one issue or another that the schools face.

On the door of her sunny office around noon on Tuesday, she pointed at a large chart she has stuck to her door. It's a graph with two axes — less urgent to more urgent on the X-axis, and easier to harder on the Y. In the top right quadrant — "Phase I," it's labeled, which is where things that are deemed easier and more urgent lie — there's some of the initiatives they've started on, such as stabilizing leadership, changing the curriculum and improving communication. In other quadrants of the plot there are the next steps, such as improving the district's cyber school and behavioral program, improving relations with the teacher's union and implementing a mechanism for "looping" teachers.

That last one involves having teachers move from grade to grade with the students. That means teachers will know all the students better, and there's less of a year-to-year disruption in the lives of students who often have many disruptions, she said.

Saylor said two teachers voluntarily "looped" this year.

"One of the things they found was a tremendous increase in parent participation," she said.

The lack of parental involvement has been a drag on the district.

"One of our biggest struggles is being able to have that parent involvement," Sawor said.

James said it's important for the community to invest in the school — not just money, but also effort and confidence.

"I think everyone agrees it does take a village to raise a child," James said. "And this is the time we’re asking our village to get involved, to stand with us."

Saylor also said the plan allows the district to monitor and approach problems in the various schools on a case-by-case basis. If the data show one school — or even just one part of one school — is having a hard time, the district can take some sort of punitive action, such as, for example, firing a principal, or a less-severe approach such as shifting resources toward the problem, she said.

Or, as the plan puts it: "Ultimately, school buildings that fail to meet the performance measurement criteria will be subject to more intensive interventions."

York City Mayor Kim Bracey, who co-chaired a committee along with Saylor aimed at collecting local feedback about the district, couldn't be reached for comment.

Clovis Gallon, who's a representative for the teacher's union, said he hasn't had a chance yet to delve into the details of the recovery plan, so he couldn't comment yet on the specifics. But Gallon, a William Penn Senior High School teacher who was outspoken in his opposition to the charter direction Meckley advocated, said he supports and agrees with Saylor's approach and vision for the district.

"I'm definitely a strong advocate on Carol Saylor’s part," he said. He said she understands the challenges of the district better than Meckley did and has shown more faith in the current system's ability to succeed — an approach he agrees with.

School board president Margie Orr said the board has a "good relationship" with Saylor. Orr said the chief recovery officer's approach has allowed the district to move its attention back to where it should be.

"Our main focus is on the children," she said.

— Reach Sean Cotter or on Twitter at@SPCotterYD.