School Choice & Charters

State Takeover Brings Pennsylvania District Closer to Charter Conversion

By Denisa R. Superville — December 26, 2014 4 min read
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Cross-posted from the District Dossier blog.

A Pennsylvania judge on Friday approved the state’s request to appoint a receiver to oversee the York City School District in a move that could result in all or some of the district’s eight schools being taken over and run by a for-profit charter management organization.

The order by President Judge Stephen P. Linebaugh of the Common Pleas Court in York County was released on Friday morning. It places the district in receivership for three years, beginning today, Dec. 26.

David Meckley, who was appointed the district’s chief recovery officer in 2012 when the district was declared to be in “moderate financial recovery,” will serve as the receiver. (You can read the opinion here.)

In a statement in the York Dispatch, Acting Education Secretary Carolyn Dumaresq, who petitioned the court for receivership on Dec. 1, said Meckley can now begin to implement measures that will restore financial and academic stability to the district.

“The department has been focused on what is in the best interest of the students of York City School District, and the court’s ruling to place York City School District into receivership and appoint Dave Meckley as receiver will begin the process of returning a high-quality education to the students and community of York City,” she said.

Marc Tarlow, who represented the school district, told the paper that he has appealed the order. And the state’s teachers’ union, the Pennsylvania State Education Association, also planned to appeal. The union called the receivership request a last-ditch effort by outgoing Gov. Tom Corbett’s administration.

“York’s citizens don’t want this, the elected school board doesn’t want this, and parents and educators don’t want this,” the union president Michael Crossey said in a statement on the union’s website. “With less than a month left in his term, there was no need for the Corbett administration to take this step and undermine the wishes of York’s citizens and their elected leaders.”

As receiver, Meckley is charged with implementing the district’s recovery plan, and he will assume broad powers and responsibilities over the district, except the ones to levy and raise taxes. The board will retain those powers, according to the order.

The bulk of the opposition by the school board, parents and the teachers’ union to the state’s petition for receivership centered on the proposal to transfer the management of all of the schools to an outside entity—something that was included in the financial recovery plan that the school board approved in June 2013.

Charter Schools USA, a Florida-based charter management organization, was the front-runner to take over the district schools. If Meckley goes through with that proposal, York City will become the first district in the state where all of the public schools will be run by a charter management organization.

But in his order, Judge Linebaugh said that the issue before him was not whether the plan the receiver would put in place was “the best plan or even a good plan for the district” or the citizens of York County. The issue, according to Linebaugh, was whether Dumaresq’s request to appoint Meckley as the receiver was “arbitrary, capricious and wholly irrelevant to restoring the district” to financial stability.

As part of the recovery plan, all of the schools were required to submit and put into effect performance improvement plans. But by November 2013, no school in the district had an approved performance improvement plan.

The recovery plan also called for salary and benefits concessions from the union, but by June attempts to reach an agreement that fell within the parameters outlined in the financial recovery plan had failed, according to the judge.

Meckley also amended the charter plan at the board’s request. Under the alternative plan, the board would continue to oversee five buildings for a period of four years, while an outside operator would operate the remaining three. In the fifth year, the results of the two approaches would be compared and then one model would be adopted for all the schools based on performance. That alternative, too, was rejected by the board, according to the opinion.

The last straw for the state seemed to come on Nov. 19. On that day, the board failed to approve an agreement between the district and an outside operator and at the same meeting approved a contract with the teachers’ union that the district business manager said would result in an annual deficit of $4 million.

(The charter agreement the board considered on Nov. 19 did not name the organization that would run the schools, and the board requested additional information, according to the order.)

The school board and the union had the task of demonstrating that the state’s actions were “arbitrary, capricious and wholly irrelevant.” They argued with the numbers that Meckley and Richard Snodgrass, the district’s business manager, presented in court. They contended that the district would actually have a surplus at the end of 2015 fiscal year. Snodgrass said that their analysis was wrong.

It’s unclear what form the charter plan will now take given that Meckley acknowledged in court that changes were necessary to address some of the board’s concerns.

Earlier this week, two Pennsylvania education legal groups also filed briefs on behalf of special education students, whose needs they said had not been adequately addressed in the charter plan.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.