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Harrisburg school board election: Voters speak for change

Written by Charles Thompson/PennLive | May 22, 2019 7:49 AM
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Harrisburg High School is seen in this April 24, 2019 photo. (Sean Simmers/PennLive)

(Harrisburg) -- Voters in Harrisburg wanted change in their school leadership.

Seemingly tired of never-ending power struggles over top positions, embarrassing accounting mistakes and perennially bad student achievement scores, the city electorate broke the back of a narrow board majority that has some ties to the Linda Thompson uprising of 2009, and opted to go in a different direction.

"The board is dysfunctional," said Uptown resident Kim Hughes, who sends her children to Catholic schools in large part because of her concerns about the city schools. "You watch a board meeting and it's out of control... They have a chief recovery officer, but nobody's willing to listen to her."

"Anybody who would let things get so bad that they're threatening (state) receivership is not doing a good job, in my opinion," agreed Judy Stammerman, another voter in the Uptown district voting at Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament, considered by some to be a bellwether of city politics.

It wasn't just Uptown voters speaking for change Tuesday, however.

In Allison Hill, voter Debbie Sanders said she only supported one of the four incumbents who was running, Ellis Roy, with whom she is personally familiar with through other community activities.

But the incumbents needed to go four-for-four in Tuesday's primary to keep their hold on the board majority, and with Roy, Lionel Gonzalez, Lola Lawson and Patricia Whitehead-Myers all headed for defeat, that majority headed by board president Danielle Robinson is now officially in lame duck status until December, when the current board members' terms end.

Tuesday's winners, according to unofficial final results, were: Jayne Buchwach, Steven Williams, Gerald Welch, James Thompson and Douglas Thompson Leader.

Voters and candidates still have to go through the November general election, but winning the Democratic primary in heavily-Democratic Harrisburg is usually decisive.

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FILE PHOTO: Harrisburg city residents meet at PA Careerlink to discuss current affairs at Harrisburg School District including the call for receivership from several elected officials, April 29, 2019. (Vicki Vellios Briner/PennLive)

So the voters spoke for change. Still to be decided, of course, is whether a move into receivership, essentially a takeover by the state, is going to beat them to the punch.

Some voters reached by PennLive Tuesday said they hoped by voting for change on Tuesday, they would be sending a signal that would forestall any Wolf Administration efforts to put the city district into state management called receivership.

"We want to keep control of our school district," said Stammerman.

But many of the city's top political leaders said, irregardless of Tuesday's results, they are inclined to keep pushing Gov. Tom Wolf to take a strong look at receivership for Harrisburg schools.

"All this election says is that the people of Harrisburg have had enough of the status quo," Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse, who has been leading the charge for receivership this spring, said this week.

But the changes that the district needs, including a near-complete rebuild of the administrative structure, is more, he believes, than "a volunteer board of well-meaning citizens can do...

If Superintendent Sybil Knight-Burney's administration was more cooperative, the mayor said, that might be one thing.

But he doesn't see that coming out of a central office that has already refused to hire a professionally-certified business manager despite repeated requests from the state, and that initially refused to cooperate with state Education Department audit processes.

"I think this (election result) is a good first step, but we need the expertise of the Pennsylvania Department of Education, as well as its resources, to assist this newly-elected, volunteer board," Papenfuse said. "I would encourage Gov. Wolf to view these results as a clear cry for help from the citizens of Harrisburg."

State Rep. Patty Kim, D-Harrisburg, said she is inclined to agree.

"I'm encouraged (by the election results) but at the same time concerned about that new timeline of when the new members take their seats. I still believe receivership can give the school district a much-needed reboot to help fix our finances and improve student academic success.

"I will be communicating with the department of education soon.

Wolf Administration officials, for their part, declined to comment on the Harrisburg situation this week, intimating that they did not want to sway the city's election.

Tuesday's elections also closed a chapter in Harrisburg politics that had at least some roots dating to the 2009 peaceful coup that saw then-city council member Linda Thompson upset 28-year Mayor Stephen R. Reed, becoming the city's first African-American mayor in the process.

Thompson's win unleashed forces that had been under Reed's thumb for years, including at the school district, where many city residents had become frustrated with a Reed-installed administration that was full of, in their view, highly-paid and overwhelmingly white outsiders.

In March 2010, Thompson took unprecedented control of the district almost by edict, packing the mayor-controlled board of control with her own appointees and imposing tough new restrictions on what her inherited superintendent, Gerald Kohn, could do without review.

Less than two weeks later, Kohn was fired, ousted by that same board of control.

But in the cat-and-mouse game that Harrisburg's politics had become, that wouldn't be the last word.

The Education Empowerment Act that put the school district in the mayor's hands expired in June 2010, and with increasing discomfort at the state level over Thompson's unconventional leadership, there was no enthusiasm at the Capitol to renew it.

City voters, meanwhile, were pleased to see their elected school board back in control.

Ironically, in March of 2011, Sybil Knight-Burney - the successor to Kohn - was hired as superintendent by a school board that then was led by Lola Lawson. Another member at the time, Patricia Whitehead-Myers, also voted to install Knight-Burney.

Two other incumbents in this year's race, Roy and Lionel Gonzalez, have allied themselves with Lawson, Whitehead-Myers and current board president Danielle Robinson to keep Knight-Burney in power and hire other power brokers of the Thompson era, such as the recent hiring of solicitor James Ellison.

The challengers, meanwhile, are promising a sharp turn away from an era that they say has been dominated by nepotism and a lack of accountability.

The voters appeared to say they wanted that too on Tuesday.

The big question now is, does it happen through the slow-moving electoral process; or does the state jump-start things with receivership?

 

PennLive and The Patriot-News are partners with PA Post.

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