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There is a great deal of “education reform” going on in the United States today. In the name of reform the first targets are urban schools and districts. If you are not in one of those districts, you may have no idea of what a dangerous precedent is being set up or how it could someday come to your district. I am going to share with you the tale of a “distressed” school district that is fighting against a takeover by the state of Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania does not have an equitable format for funding public schools especially urban schools. Most schools are funded by property taxes on properties within the district. This means that if property values are low in a district, there is little money for the local schools. Poorer districts are usually forced to rely on aid from the state but this aid is never guaranteed. Federal aid is usually earmarked for specific programs and can’t be used for other purposes. Enter the York City Public Schools.
In 2012, the PA Department of Education determined that the York school district was moderately financially distressed and appointed an area businessman (David Meckley) to become the chief recovery officer (CRO). The CRO was to meet with elected members of the school board, parents, and other stakeholders to form a recovery plan. The two options that were considered were a plan that had been worked out by teachers and administrators and if that didn’t have the desired results a plan that called for the entire district to be run by a for-profit charter school company. The first option was used as a starting point and was in place for a short period of time. One problem that arose was that the CRO wanted the York school district employees to accept a $30,000 pay cut over a five year period of time. The elected school board had negotiated a new contract which would have given staff a raise (as they had continued to work under their old contract which began in 2008) but this contract violated the cost-cutting actions that Mr. Meckley wanted.
In November 2014, the CRO sent a proposal to the school board to have Charter Schools USA, a for-profit charter management company, take control of the entire district. The school board held hearings where many objections to the plan were raised. The board decided to table the plan for the time being.
On December 1, 2014, the Department of Education went to Common Pleas Court to have Mr. Meckley appointed as the receiver for the school district. The request was granted. This allows Mr. Meckley to carry out his plan to turn the district over to Charter Schools USA for three years over the objections of the elected school board, the parents, and the taxpayers.
If Charter Schools USA accepts the contract offered, it is likely that all district employees would become employees of the company. They would most likely receive lower wages in this deal. One of the objections that has been raised is that this particular charter management company has never run an entire district before nor do they have experience with students that match the demographics in York. What must be thrown into the mix as well is that Pennsylvania law requires that options other than attendance in this charter district must be offered. How that would be worked out is still not clear.
An appeal is being filed by the York City School Board. The Pennsylvania State Education Association which represents York teachers is also considering an appeal. Pennsylvania School Board Association executive director Nathan Mains has asked the Acting Sec. of Education, Ms. Dumaresq and Mr. Meckley to delay final action on turning the York district over to a charter school operator until the newly elected governor is inaugurated.
This scenario is worrisome on several levels. First, the action to change Mr. Meckley’s status from CRO to receiver occurred just after Gov. Corbett lost his re-election bid. Secondly, York happens to be the hometown of newly elected Gov. Wolf. The original plan offered by teachers and administrators had only been in place for a few months before it was scrapped in favor of the charter school plan. The elected school board has had all of its responsibilities taken away by the Secretary of Education, an appointed position.
As an educator and a taxpayer, there are two issues that I believe should concern us all. York schools were targeted because they were considered moderately financially distressed, yet Mr. Meckley has no issue with turning the entire district over to a for profit management company who will earn a profit from taxpayer money. In addition, the elected school boards as well as the parents of York have no say in any of the decisions being made for the education of their children. Is this really how public education is supposed to work?
This is not an isolated situation in only one state. A similar situation is occurring in Memphis, TN and I will look at that situation in another article.
Do you believe that for profit management companies are a solution for urban schools?