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Published in Print: January 10, 2001, as Mayoral Takeover of Schools Off To Tumultuous Start in Pa. Capital

Mayoral Takeover of Schools Off To Tumultuous Start in Pa. Capital

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The mayor of Pennsylvania's capital city is exercising his new authority over the city's schools, following a turbulent transition marked by high-level personnel changes and the launch of an investigation into allegations of missing school property and misuse of district funds.

Mayor Stephen R. Reed was cleared for a state-authorized takeover of the 8,200- student Harrisburg school district by a Dec. 15 state court decision. In that ruling, Judge Dan Pellegrini rejected a request by the district's elected board members to block the mayor from taking over the schools while they continued their legal challenge to a new state law authorizing the seizure.

Three days later, the mayor appointed a new five-member board of control, which quickly moved into administrative offices equipped with different locks and new computer-access codes.

'Shaking Our Heads'

The mayor and his appointees claim they have since found ample evidence of lost or stolen district property, including approximately 1,000 missing computers and dozens of missing snowblowers, televisions, and videocassette recorders. Randy King, a spokesman for the mayor, said they have also uncovered evidence of "ghost employees," who appear on the district payroll but never report to work. In response, the mayor has recruited a task force of local police, officials from the county district attorney's and state attorney general's offices, and FBI agents to sort through school records.

"The mayor had long suspected many of these things, but the reality of it was shocking," said Mr. King. "We're literally just shaking our heads every day, wondering how it could have gotten to this point."

Lawyers representing some of the elected school board members, meanwhile, have pledged to appeal the recent court decision, maintaining that Harrisburg is still unfairly targeted by the state takeover law. Judge Pellegrini last June blocked the mayor's initial move to take control of the district, saying the original version of the law violated the state constitution by singling out Harrisburg.

Changes Under Way

In November, the legislature broadened the scope of the law, opening up the possibility that other low-performing districts meeting certain criteria could be targeted for takeover as well. The judge's decision last month to allow the mayor to proceed was based upon those amendments.

Since replacing the elected board, the board of control has undertaken a reorganization of the district's governance structure, promoting former business manager Brenda Conner to chief operating officer, and suspending acting Superintendent Linda Portluck and the district's chief academic officer without pay. The principal of the district's only high school was also placed on suspension without pay.

In addition, Mr. King said, the mayor plans to rehire former Superintendent Lucian Yates III, who was fired by the elected board in October, to fulfill at least the remainder of his three-year contract, which runs through July.

Though Mr. Yates had served as schools chief since August 1998, Mr. King said former school board members were more to blame for the district's problems with missing property and personnel management than was Mr. Yates.

"They wouldn't allow the superintendent to pursue these matters because of potential conflicts with their friends, family members, and supporters, who have a financial interest in the district," Mr. King charged.

New 'Empowerment Team'

Royce Morris, the former school board solicitor who still represents seven of the nine elected board members, said such charges were an effort to "demonize" the former board members.

"Missing equipment at the building level is not the responsibility of board members," Mr. Morris said. "That's crazy."

Meanwhile, the mayor plans to name a new "empowerment team" to hammer out a revised improvement plan for the district. The plan drafted by the previous empowerment team, which was appointed following passage of the original law last spring, will be incorporated into the new plan, said Trent Hargrove, the chairman of the new control board.

How soon and how much the shake-up at the district's central office will affect students and staff members at the school level is yet unknown. The mayor has pledged that he will work to ensure that students have the appropriate textbooks, and that they will receive report cards on time.

Richard Askey, the president of the Harrisburg affiliate of the National Education Association, said the union is taking a wait-and-see approach.

"It's like a game of 52-card pickup, and we're wondering who's going to be around to help pick up the cards," Mr. Askey said. "We're just hoping things calm down a little bit."

Dan Robinson, the principal of Foose Elementary School, said he is also waiting to see how the chips fall, but is generally optimistic about the district's future. "I think there's a light at the end of the tunnel," Mr. Robinson said.

Vol. 20, Issue 16, Page 5

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