Harrisburg school recovery office: district in dire straits

It doesn't look good. An analysis of Harrisburg Schools revealed the district is in dire straits. Chief Recovery Officer Gene Veno and his team have a road map to recovery.

Polished shoes, gold cufflinks, and a perfectly placed pocket square, Gene Veno's attire is a microcosm that this man pays attention to detail – the smallest. So, it was no surprise when the Chief Recovery Officer of the Harrisburg School District unveiled a comprehensive analysis of the challenges city schools face. 

Veno and his team of six gurus with various areas of expertise sat in a boardroom on Front Street and presented the often-gruesome details. In essence, Veno told it like it is.

“I'm not here to be superintendent, I'm not here to be a board member, and I'm not here to be a receiver,” he said. “I'm here to work as a support staff for you to implement a good recovery plan.”

First, let's start with academics.

Harrisburg Schools currently rank 494 out of 500 school districts in Pennsylvania. Student performance on standardized tests showed 38 percent of students district-wide are “below basic” for math, 42 percent tested below basic for reading.

Veno found performance was tied to administrators not spending enough time in the classroom assessing, monitoring, or modeling effective instruction. Veno explained administrators, principals, and teaches did not effectively work as a team to enhance student performance.

Enrollment was found to be declining which Veno found had a direct negative impact on making schools more attractive and competitive.

Next, comes the fiscal and budget woes.

To start, the school district will face a $5.1 million budget deficit for the 2013-2014 school year. Veno said board members already implemented measures that erased a $7 million gap. Unfortunately, the $5.1 million deficit would stand even is board members vote to hike school taxes another 9.7 percent next year.

Last week, abc27 reported board members kicked the around. Using an example of a $100,000 property, that owner would have to pay another $261 or $2,958 overall.

What tends to make matters worse, Veno said 47 percent of city residents are tax-exempt. So, that means less-and-less revenues are coming in to fight year-end budget holes.

Veno explained if the district continues on its current path, Harrisburg schools are projected to face an annual deficit of $44.4 million and an overall shortfall of $144.5 million by 2018.

“That number is stark and it was really and sincerely dire,” said Veno. “[School board members] will have to do something.”

Veno's job is basically a consultant, a paid advisor to help board members get back on financial track. So, his team advised board members to ditch the annual budget and adopt his five-year plan.

Veno's full report and spending plan will come out the week of April 22nd. So, Thursday's findings were the ‘Cliff Notes' of that report.

Veno provided other suggestions to school board members Thursday night during a public meeting with parents and residents. He recommends the school board streamline its expenses further. Veno said cost-saving measures could be taken in the district's labor force, food service, and facilities expenses.

One thing Veno said you would not find in his plan – cuts to performing arts and athletics.

“Performing arts will not be cut in this budget, athletics will not be cut in this budget. We will not see that happen is this district,” he said.

Veno was adamant athletics and performing arts are must to keep kids in school and provide opportunities to individuals of all socioeconomic backgrounds. He said William Shipley III, owner of Shipley Energy in Harrisburg, donated $60,000 to help save and expand performing arts.

Veno said his goal is to have a play at Harrisburg High School by next school year.

The CRO is very optimistic that is a reachable goal, not to mention recovery as a whole. He admitted the process will take time and all parties involved must be patient. However, Veno can only advise board members. They have to vote on whether or not to adopt and implement his plan.

View Veno's involvement as a trial period. If the school board does not take any action to right the ship, the state will appoint a new captain and go into receivership just like the city. Board members have until December 12, 2013 to make a decision. If nothing, Harrisburg Schools will forfeit power and the state will take over.

So, that begs the question to Veno – will it?

“Will it go into receivership? I say no,” he said with confidence.

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