York City School District is beginning a process aimed at bringing long-term stability and success to the district, and details of what's coming are still being developed.
Last week, the state declared York City School District in moderate financial recovery and appointed Spring Garden Township resident David Meckley as chief recovery officer, tasked with crafting a plan to turn district finances around.
The financial recovery law was just adopted over the summer, so the district is embarking on a process so new that there isn't much history to go by.
"I'd say everything is on table, everything will be looked at," said Tim Eller, state education department spokesman.
Harrisburg School District was declared in moderate recovery the same day as York. The Duquesne City School District was previously declared in moderate financial recovery and the recovery officer has since received a time extension for developing the recovery plan.
The Chester-Upland School District was declared in severe financial recovery -- a higher level than York -- in August, and the district has since had a receiver appointed after the school board rejected the recovery plan.
York school board President Margie Orr said Friday that she won't know many details until Monday, when she's scheduled to meet with Meckley.
"It's my understanding that this is all up to Mr. Meckley and what his agenda will be for us moving forward," she said.
She thought Meckley might want to attend the upcoming school board meeting, she said. She's heard from some community members that she trusts that Meckley is a "straight shooter" and the best person the district could have hoped to have in the role.
"So we're hoping for the best," she said.
Kim Schwarz, president of the York City Education Association and a fifth-grade teacher, said she's looking forward to meeting and working with Meckley. She wishes there were more details available about what's coming.
"We're just waiting," she said.
Meckley said last week he views the process as a collaborative one. Asked to answer more questions Friday, he said it would be more appropriate next week because he had some meetings to complete.
The law says that within 10 days of a district being declared in financial recovery, the school board must create an advisory committee to work with the recovery officer.
The board will appoint two school board members, a district principal and a district business official to the committee. The local intermediate unit, in York's case Lincoln Intermediate Unit 12, must appoint a representative of the intermediate unit, a representative of a charter or cyber charter school, a special education advocate, a school official from an adjoining district and two residents.
The teachers union will appoint a teacher to join the committee, and the superintendent will be a part of the group as well, the law says.
Meckley has 90 days to, with the help of Supt. Deborah Wortham, craft the recovery plan and present it to the board, which must then make it public, the law says.
Within 30 days of that, the board must vote on the plan. If the board does not approve it, the district is not eligible for transitional loans or technical assistance from the state, the law says. If the board hasn't approved the plan within a year, then a receiver could be appointed.
Eller emphasized that what's happening isn't a "state takeover," though the law garnered that nickname as it moved through the legislature. The possibility of the state appointing a receiver is a year away, he said.
"The ultimate goal here is to work together and come up with a plan to move the district forward," he said.
Money is what drives any decisions in school districts, down to what cleaners the maintenance workers use, he said. But it's not just about finances, he said, and that's the reason for having an advisory committee.
The work will be creating a plan that ensures quality education but at the same time balances the books, he said.
Meckley said last week that though the legislation is specifically aimed at finances, he thinks success for city children has three components: education, financial viability, and health and safety.
"All three of those things are what it takes to have a successful district," he said.
A solution for the long term
The school district, in recent years, has managed to balance its budget year after year, but it has sometimes taken drastic measures. Programs have been cut, teachers furloughed, wages frozen, taxes hiked and two schools closed.
"Every year, technically they get through the budget," said state Rep. Eugene DePasquale.
But clearly, there's a long-term problem, he said, though that's not to say it isn't being addressed.
"We all know it needs to get a lot better from a fiscal standpoint," he said.
Sen. Mike Waugh said the process aims to secure the future of the district "in such a way that the district is viable and sustainable ... and provides good sound education of students."
"Sustainability" has become a buzzword, he said, but it applies in this case.
"We're hopeful to get out from under this idea of year-to-year showdown between the state and the district," he said, and debates about whether there will be enough funding or whether the state will provide stopgap funding.
Orr has said that what the district could really use is more funding.
Lauri Lebo, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, said that Gov. Tom Corbett could help by restoring charter school reimbursement, a line of funding that was cut, which hit the city district particularly hard.
Waugh said the state does have a role to play in the process, noting that last year, the state directed some additional funds to "distressed" districts, including York.
"The state has an obligation and will step up to the obligation of providing the resources necessary to make sure this process works," he said.
Waugh said community members need to allow Meckley and others to do their work and not jump to any conclusions about what might be right or wrong.
"The best thing we can do is provide input where we believe it's reasonable, where it's constructive and allow them to do their work," he said.
There was resistance to the process, he said, he thinks largely because it labeled the district. But he believes that in the end, the process will be of benefit.
"It's important for we as residents and citizens ... to allow that process to roll out," he said.
York City finances
Here's a look at recent financial history in the York City School District:
November/December 2010: District officials said they must close a $15 million gap in the budget for 2011-12. The district hadn't raised taxes in several years, costs were going up, stimulus funding was ending, and officials weren't sure what to expect in Gov. Tom Corbett's first budget.
March 2011: Corbett's first proposed budget eliminated a funding stream that reimbursed school districts for a portion of the costs they pay to charter schools, taking school districts by surprise. For the city district, it meant a loss of about $6 million to $7 million that year. District officials said the projected deficit grew by about $11 million after the release of the proposed budget.
Teachers and administrators agreed to take wage freezes in order to save full-day kindergarten.
June 2011: The school board approved a 5.21 percent tax increase for 2011-12. The board previously made cuts in numerous programs and furloughed staff members to help balance the budget.
August 2011: The district, under new Supt. Deborah Wortham, requested technical assistance from the state department of education on financial matters, after learning its fund balance might have been overstated.
November 2011: District officials project they'll have a gap of about $19 million to close for the 2012-13 budget.
February 2012: The district said it was facing an $8 million deficit for the current year and might have difficulty making payroll later in the year.
April 2012: The district requested and received an advance on its state funding to address cash flow problems, though officials later said they would not have requested it if they had known it would trigger the financial recovery law.
June/July 2012: The York City School Board initially voted to raise taxes by 17 percent. But after the state budget passed, and some additional funding was directed to the district, the board reduced that to an 8.5 percent tax increase.
The district also closed its two middle schools before the start of the 2012-13 school year, instead changing its elementary schools to serve kindergarten to eighth grade. Some program cuts and staff furloughs were again part of the package.