Is Pennsylvania's financial recovery law helping school districts?

Monica Randler teaches a new social studies-infused English-language arts curriculum  in her classroom at Ferguson Elementary School in York City, Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016.  Dawn J. Sagert photo

After the state denied York City School District's request to have its recovery status terminated this summer, it is unclear what the district has to do to move forward.

State-appointed monitor Carol Saylor has criticized the state's financial recovery law for not clearly laying out what districts have to do to get out from under state control.

"This has been the complaint from the very beginning," said state Rep. Carol Hill-Evans, D-York City, who also sits on the state's Education Committee.

The longer the state doesn't provide a road map, the more vulnerable it makes (districts), she said.

York City Superintendent Andrea Berry said she's not against being in recovery if it's helping the district make needed improvements. She said she does feel like the state has given enough direction, but the district just has not reached those goals yet.

"We will continue to work diligently," she said. "It doesn’t mean that we’re going to give up. We’re just going to have to work a little harder to do it."

Four of the state's school districts were placed in financial recovery — under a law that issues state watchdogs to guide academic and financial improvement in financially distressed districts — in 2012.

York City and Harrisburg were deemed "moderate" and received a state overseer but retained board control. Duquesne City and Chester Upland were deemed "severe" and given a state receiver. 

York City School Board President Margie Orr (front) and board members listen to newly-appointed 2019-20 Superintendent Andrea Berry speak at the Wednesday, April 17 board meeting at William Penn Senior High School. (Photo by: Lindsay C. VanAsdalan)

More:York City financial recovery exit denied months ago, state says

Since then, two of those districts have fallen deeper into distress, fending off recent attempts at privatization.  

Chester Community Charter School, managed privately by a for-profit company, and one of the largest charters in the state, petitioned courts to take over nearly all of the district's schools but was denied Wednesday, Dec. 4.

However, the threat is not off the table. A judge plans to review a new financial recovery plan for the district and schedule hearings in February or March, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

Meanwhile, the state seized control of Harrisburg this summer, and that district was targeted last month in a state House voucher bill that would use state subsidy money to pay private school tuition. The bill remains in second consideration on the House floor.

Both situations threatened those schools' identities as public school districts, which proves to some that something isn't working.

"I think what you see is frustration with those school districts," said state Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York Township. "That's why I think you’re seeing all those different attempts to fix it. The status quo hasn’t been working, so people are looking for what will work."

State Department of Education spokesman Eric Levis could not say why two of the original districts in recovery are facing these challenges, noting they were legislative issues.

"The move of some of those schools is outside our control," he said.

State Rep. Keith Gillespie, R-West Manchester Township, said it might not necessarily be a bad thing for vouchers or charters to enter into the solution. He said he would have supported vouchers for Harrisburg.

"Even in some of the recovery situations, it’s just not working," he said. "We need to do something different to try and save these children."

He noted York City School District has some of the worst graduation rates in the state, yet York Academy Regional Charter School, which is also in the city, is doing great things.

More:Graduation rates plunged in districts under financial recovery

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Whether the issue is with the state's recovery law or other outside factors is unclear, a school association and local lawmakers say.

Phillips-Hill said transparency of finances, good financial management and a team effort from districts, the community, the state and parents are necessary to help districts out of recovery.

"I think the thing that puts distressed school districts into a vulnerable position is the lack of funding," said Mark DiRocco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators. 

York City School District Superintendent Eric Homes, left, gives his statement to the House Democratic Policy Committee hearing on Fair Education Funding, Wednesday, March 7, 2018.  John A. Pavoncello

In 2014, a lawsuit filed by the Education Law Center and Public Interest Law Center alleged a constitutional violation from significant underfunding and disparities that penalize students in poorer districts.

That lawsuit could see a trial this summer, according to a Commonwealth Court announcement last year.

In each of the state's recovery districts, more than half of students tested were economically disadvantaged — with 89% in York City, 54% in Chester Upland, 96% in Duquesne and 84% in Harrisburg, according to recent data from the Pennsylvania Value-Added Assessment System.

"School districts are very reliant on the local school property tax," Phillips-Hill said, adding that in York City, almost 30% of the tax base is exempt, which Berry confirmed. 

Berry said there are "some huge entities" in the district that are tax exempt, and a lack of funding over the years is making it difficult to institute the recovery plan effectively.

Analysis from Keystone Research Center economist Mark Price showed funding has not kept pace with rising costs such as pension reimbursements, according to a news release from the law center.

"I know some people on the political spectrum want to say money isn’t the answer," DiRocco said.

But he predicts that in five to 10 years, the state will have several more districts in distress because they have not recovered since the recession, and new funding dollars have gone out the window with rising pension, special education and charter costs.

He also said funding alone is not a solution without good leadership for effective money management.

A Duquesne City School District spokeswoman from the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, Sarah McCluan, said officials from that district did not want to comment.

"It just seems like the school districts are even more vulnerable with the law the way that it is," Hill-Evans said.