Newly retired York City Superintendent Eric Holmes led district through troubled times

Outgoing York City School District Superintendent Eric Holmes poses outside the district administration building Wednesday, July 17, 2019. His 32-year career with the district began as a high school social studies teacher. He has been superintendent since 2013. Bill Kalina photo

York City School District officials are still waiting to hear if the state will accept their request to be removed from financial recovery status — a decision that was expected to come this July.

The state Department of Education unofficially told the district it could be another three to four weeks, the district's chief recovery officer, Carol Saylor, said on Monday, July 29, but department spokesman Eric Levis said the delay is just a normal part of the process.

The district has been following a mandated recovery plan since just before former Superintendent Eric Holmes took over in the 2013-14 school year.

Following his retirement this July, some applauded him for his leadership during one of the district's most trying periods.

“He led the school district out of the immediate financial distress and at the same time made some gains in the education of the students, as shown by improvement in most of the schools,” said York City Mayor Michael Helfrich.

Though achievement scores on state assessments are still below all other county districts and charter schools, students met or exceeded the growth standard in all state assessments for the past two years, according to the most recent Pennsylvania Value-Added Assessment System data.

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For example, the highest percentage of proficient and advanced students on Keystone exams remains under 40%, but in all three exams, the number of students testing "below basic" dropped from 2015 to 2017, according to state data.

Outgoing York City School District Superintendent Eric Holmes speaks at the district administration building Wednesday, July 17, 2019. His 32-year career with the district began as a high school social studies teacher. He has been superintendent since 2013. Bill Kalina photo

'Been through a lot': Board member James Sawor commended Holmes for bringing so many electives back to the district, and he added that though they didn’t always agree, Holmes provided great leadership because he could always foresee the positives and negatives.

"We've been through a lot — some bad, mostly all good," board President Margie Orr said at a June board meeting.

Back when Holmes started, the district was in the throes of financial hardship — forced to lay off dozens of teachers, freeze staff and administrator pay and pass substantial tax increases, while relying on grant funding to keep kindergarten and other programs.

More:York City schools fight 'financial distress' label

More:State places York City schools in financial recovery

The state placed it in moderate financial recovery in 2012, under the direction of a state-appointed recovery officer, David Meckley — along with Harrisburg City School District (which is now getting a receiver) and two others that were given severe status and a state receiver.

Meckley said it was not financial mismanagement that put the district there but poor academics. Too many students were fleeing to charter schools and the district was losing resources from per-student state funding.

But charters also had a checkered history in York City — two closed because the district did not renew their charters after poor academic performance and financial management.

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Sawor said both the board and administration were in agreement on turning down charters that did not provide anything the district could not and that did not have proper funding.

He said no school officials have regretted the decision to close Helen Thackston Charter School last year, as it did not execute a Homeland Security program — which was part of its agreement — and could not provide necessary documents.

The school board also voted in 2014 not to renew New Hope Academy's charter.

Court fight: Meckley provided oversight for the district from 2012 through 2015, when he resigned after a failed attempt to convert all of the district’s schools to charters. He pitched a hybrid plan to the board for three charters, three district-run schools and one jointly run school. 

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The school board rejected Meckley’s plan in 2014, but after a court battle, Meckley was designated the district’s receiver. However, when Gov. Tom Wolf was elected in 2015, that plan was opposed under his Education Department.

Saylor, Meckley's replacement as recovery officer, helped develop another plan, which included many of the initiatives from the original plan, such as looping, distributed leadership and site-based management, Holmes said.

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

"I've always tried to avoid making comments about anyone else's career," Saylor said of Holmes, but she added that she thinks the district is in a good place to be granted a release from recovery and just needs to stay the course with its plan.

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When Holmes began as superintendent six years ago, the district had a fund balance deficit of about $1.4 million. The state had predicted it would have a deficit of about $55.8 million by the 2017-18 school year.

But that did not happen, and instead the district ended this year with a fund balance of about $12 million.

“I never wavered or doubted that we would be OK,” Holmes said, citing his belief in public education. Although charters are a needed option, he said, taking away public schools violates a constitutional right.

“Are we where we need to be? Not by a long shot,” but the district has turned a corner and can move ahead, said state Rep. Carol Hill-Evans, D-York City.

She would like to see more parent involvement and Communities in Schools.

The future: But the district still faces charter competition, as just this spring Holmes announced the need to bring back 75 students from area charters and technical schools to boost the district’s fund balance, which is expected to drop to about $6 million by the end of the 2019-20 school year.

More:York City district aims to recover 75 students with 'aggressive outreach' campaign

Next year, the district would need to find about $6 million without using its balance.

“I think financially the district is in a good place,” Sawor said, but he noted rather than bringing back students from charters, the better bet would be focusing on its own cyber charter academy, which could offer what the district can’t.

Sawor, Helfrich and Holmes also agreed on education funding being a huge factor in the district’s future health.

Rep. Carol Hill-Evans hosts a House Democratic Policy Committee hearing on Fair Education Funding at the York City School District Administration building, Wednesday, March 7, 2018. John A. Pavoncello

Though the fair education funding formula implemented in 2016 helped, the district was still underfunded for years, they said.

“I have tremendous respect for Dr. Holmes and his perseverance and creativity,” Meckley said, applauding the district’s financial strides, but from his perspective, the academics are still not up to par.

The four-year graduation rate fell from 81.41% in 2013-14 to 62.56% in 2016-17, according to the most recent state data.

The district does not use tests such as those provided through Northwest Evaluation Association, which offer engagement and growth plans, and Meckley maintains that a charter conversion would have been beneficial.

Holmes has no regrets, saying, as an administrator, “You're in the middle of the work and doing what you need to do at the time.”

He first came to the district as a long-term social studies substitute 32 years ago, when there was a lot more trust in the district, he said, and his goal for the last six years has been to bring that back.

"The success of a school district is firmly rooted in the relationship that it has in the community," he said.

Outgoing York City School District Superintendent Eric Holmes speaks at the district administration building Wednesday, July 17, 2019. His 32-year career with the district began as a high school social studies teacher. He has been superintendent since 2013. Bill Kalina photo