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York City financial recovery exit denied months ago, state says

William Penn Senior High School, or York High, in York City, Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The state Department of Education denied York City School District's request to terminate its financial recovery status in August, according to a letter addressed to district officials and provided Tuesday to The York Dispatch.

The document's release came after the district's recovery officer, Carol Saylor, had previously said in November that there were no updates about York City's petition to get out from under the state designation.

This summer, York City officials were hopeful the Education Department would free the school district from its recovery designation, which it has been under for years. 

But the state instead decided the district hadn't displayed enough improvement in academic and financial benchmarks to exit recovery status, according to the August determination.

The department considered academic and fiscal outcomes from the 2017-18 school year, the district's first full year under its amended recovery plan.

The letter from Education Secretary Pedro Rivera notes that while students had made modest gains, graduation rates were still far below the state average. And in the most recent years, there has been a decrease in the unassigned fund balance and a widened gap between revenues and expenditures, according to the letter.

The district was told unofficially at the end of July that it would hear back from the state in about three or four weeks, Saylor had said.

"I'll let you know if and when I hear anything," Saylor said in a text message to The York Dispatch in July. When asked on Tuesday, Nov. 12, if there were any updates, she said no.

“Not a word,” she wrote in a text message. 

Saylor on Tuesday, Dec. 3, clarified that the letter was shared with the board this summer but that she had gotten no additional information on what needs to be done for the district to be removed from recovery.

A letter sent in August from the state Department of Education denying York City School District's petition to exit state recovery status.

More:While York City district's grades improved, its graduation rate plunged

More:Graduation rates plunged in districts under financial recovery

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The district has to prove that it will maintain progress and build on it before the state would consider releasing the district, Rivera's letter states. Rivera wrote that's especially the case since the district has had a leadership change.

Superintendent Andrea Berry replaced Eric Holmes in April after two years as assistant superintendent. Spokeswoman ShaiQuana Mitchell did not return a call requesting comment on behalf of Berry before deadline Tuesday.

Education Department spokesman Eric Levis said Tuesday he could not say what specific benchmarks York City would have to meet.

York City first went into financial recovery in 2012 along with three other districts: Harrisburg, Chester-Upland and Duquesne.

Two of those — Duquesne and Chester-Upland — were in "severe" financial recovery, meaning they would be under a state receiver.

York City and Harrisburg were deemed "moderate." They each still received a chief recovery officer to establish and oversee a recovery plan, but the local school boards retained control.

In recent months, the issues in two of those districts have snowballed.

This summer, the state seized control of the Harrisburg district. Recently, legislation was introduced in the state House that would create a voucher program for private school tuition using a portion of that district's annual state subsidy.

Chester Community Charter School is also threatening to convert Chester-Upland's K-8 buildings to charter schools, according to reporting from The Philadelphia Tribune.

A Common Pleas judge will hear the charter petition at 9 a.m. Wednesday, the paper reported. 

York City faced a charter conversion under its previous recovery officer, David Meckley, in 2014, but following a court battle, that plan was eventually opposed by the Education Department after Gov. Tom Wolf was elected in 2015.

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

Saylor was appointed as the new recovery officer, and since then the district has been on track to meet its requirements to be removed from recovery status in the summer of 2019, district officials have said.

Saylor has said that what the state wants to see from the district in order to approve its release from recovery status is unclear. There’s nothing in the law that says exactly what districts need to do to get out, she has said.

Officials can submit another request to be released from recovery at the end of the school year, according to the August letter. That timeline will allow the department three full years under the current plan to look back on, as well as one year of new leadership.

Saylor said that she doesn't know why the state gave the reasons it did for the denial.

The decision to reapply at the end of this year would be up to the school board, she said, and it's something the board and administration plan to discuss.