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EDITORIAL: 'Optimistically cautious' on York City schools

The York Dispatch
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

York City school board President Margie Orr is correct.

The end of state oversight of the district "would be the best thing for our community."

The city’s self-esteem took a hit in 2012 when the state essentially told its leaders they had so mismanaged the schools that they could no longer be trusted with the responsibility.

We imagine the feeling was the same in Harrisburg, Chester-Upland and Duquesne, the other three districts — out of 500 — that were placed under some degree of state supervision.

More:York City schools: End of state oversight near?

More:'Substantial progress' in York City schools, education firm says

But let’s add one caveat to Orr’s assessment: Freeing themselves from oversight would be best for the community, but only if the school board and administration truly no longer need the support.

School board member James Sawor is taking an admirably pragmatic approach to the possibility York City will emerge from its financially distressed status at the end of its four-year, state-mandated recovery plan.

York City School Board President Margie Orr, left, is introduced to Jackie Dell-Shearer, Martin Library after school program manager, by Paula Gilbert, center, the library's director of youth services, during a tour Edgar Fahs Smith STEAM Academy Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2017. The school will be open for classes starting Monday, Aug. 21, for students in grades 3-8 for the new school year. Bill Kalina photo

He says he's "optimistically cautious," but is concerned about adequate state funding and whether the district’s progress is sustainable without it.

"We don't want the state to say, 'They're fine,'" because the district got out of financial recovery, Sawyor said.

He noted the district has to borrow $2.3 million from its unreserved fund balance to balance its 2018-19 budget — and correctly points out that’s not sustainable.

Yet, as it nears the end of its recovery plan, the York City School District is reportedly on track to meet all of the benchmarks it contains, according to both Carol Saylor, the state-appointed financial recovery officer, and a recent report from a nonprofit education firm monitoring its progress.

The 2012 law that put the four districts under state supervision includes requirements that they not request an advance on basic education subsidies, pay teachers and employees on time and not default on bonds, notes or lease rentals. 

More:State places York City schools in financial recovery

More:State asks to withdraw petition for receivership of York City schools

Specific to York City, Saylor also required the district to have three successive years of a positive fund balance of at least 5 percent of annual revenues and two successive years of positive annual financial results.

According to her, so far, so good.

In this file photo, York City School District Superintendent Dr. Eric Holmes gives an update on his district during a press conference regarding the Campaign for Fair Education Funding at the School District for the City of York Administrative Building in York City, Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2017. Dawn J. Sagert photo

On the academic side, Superintendent Eric Holmes notes state test scores are improving, with some exceeding the state standard in 2017.

That’s encouraging news — although the graduation rate reportedly has dropped from 82 percent in the 2014-15 school year to 70 percent last year. That’s an issue we expect will need to be addressed during the final year of the recovery plan.

A new, fairer formula to fund public education in Pennsylvania — one that accounted for changes in enrollment or factors such as poverty, household income and property values — was instituted two years ago and is credited with much of the district’s success.

Still, York City’s is the most underfunded school district in the state based on per-student spending, and one of the most severely underfunded overall, according to Equity First, a coalition fighting for equitable education funding in Pennsylvania.

The group and local officials support a "catch-up bill," proposed by state Sen. Bob Mensch, R-Marlborough Township, that would put 75 percent of yearly school funding toward underfunded districts, with the remaining 25 percent split between all 500 districts.

Hopefully, lawmaker will support the bill, but there’s no guarantee.  

York City School District Board Member James Sawor speaks during a special meeting regarding the future of Helen Thackston Charter School at the Administration Building in York City, Feb. 13, 2017. Dawn J. Sagert photo

If the York City School District’s progress hinges on it, local officials may want to tap the brakes as it approaches the end of its recovery plan a year from now.

Luckily, at least one school board member recognizes that. Sawor says if he doesn't think the district is ready, he'll support staying on recovery status beyond the end of the recovery plan.

It's a good option.

Leaving state supervision would be good for the community.

Returning to it in short order could be devastating.