Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse wants to shake things up in the city's public schools. Papenfuse said he's calling on the State Secretary of Education to oust Harrisburg Schools Chief Recovery Officer Gene Veno.
In what may be the biggest announcement in his first 100 days, Papenfuse's campaign to replace Veno comes as a shock to many city leaders, including Veno himself.
“I didn't receive a copy of the press release until [Dave Marcheskie] called,” he said. “And, so I was not afforded the professional courtesy of receiving it from the mayor, but that's okay.”
The mayor called a press conference in his office late Thursday afternoon. The mayor sat next to his education advisor, Karl Singleton, and spoke with the media. Papenfuse said he is “disturbed” by “point blank” comments he said Veno made during a private meeting “about a month ago.”
“In direct conversation with me, our recovery officer expressed a clear belief that they did not believe the school district recovery plan was not going to work,” Papenfuse said.
Papenfuse further explained he was concerned about Veno's confidence in the plan.
“He has not acknowledged publicly what he has acknowledged privately. I find that ultimately the main issue here,” said Papenfuse. “Otherwise, I'm suspicious of the entire endeavor.”
Veno denied he ever said anything on that matter.
“When I met with the mayor previously about that, my comment was, 'you have to give the superintendent and this school board an opportunity to succeed,” Veno said.
Papenfuse said he is in support of Superintendent Sybil Knight-Burney and school board members, including President Jennifer Smallwood.
Veno said he recalled a private meeting with State Rep. Patty Kim [D-Dauphin County], State Senator Rob Teplitz [D-Dauphin County], and Auditor General Eugene DePasquale that did not include Knight-Burney and Smallwood. During that meeting, Veno said Papenfuse asked him to fire Ms. Knight-Burney.
This meeting happened before DePasquale announced during a press conference he will conduct an audit of the school district. Knight-Burney and Smallwood were not invited to the press conference either.
Papenfuse said he did not like Veno's unwillingness to conduct a forensic audit, which he believes could help generate millions of dollars in settlement gains for the district. Veno said the district did not have the means to conduct such an audit.
But Papenfuse stated he has knowledge that the Attorney General's Office is conducting an investigation into misuse of school funds.
Papenfuse said Veno's comments prompted him to speak with Carolyn Dumaresq, acting State Secretary of Education, about replacing Veno as CRO. The mayor said he is not pleased with the school's academic progress under Veno's recovery plan.
“He doesn't have the skills or educational background ready to implement the changes that are necessary at this point,” said Papenfuse.
Veno's resume was read out loud to Papenfuse, which pointed to Veno's educational background, which included serving as a school board member in Scranton, instructor at Lebanon Valley College, and Dean of Continuing Education at Lackawanna College.
Papenfuse gave a rebuttal that Veno's experience did not lay in urban education.
“Academically we've been into the district five months,” said Veno. “This is a 60 month program. So, within in the next 55 months you're going to see some academic changes.”
Tim Eller, a spokesperson with the State Secretary of Education, said it is too early to review Harrisburg's academics under the recovery plan.
Papenfuse said he believed the school board and teacher's union would be behind his call to oust Veno. Smallwood was not readily available. Harrisburg Teacher's Union President Sheri Magnuson said she is “baffled” by the mayor's comments.
Papenfuse said he also supports the Key Charter School moving into the vacant Bishop McDevitt School building on Market Street. Veno said a charter school in the city would hurt the public schools financially and academically.
“That program could take $15 million out of the school district,” he said.
Veno explained students would be better served using the district's programs like Cougar Academy, a cyber school program, and the Math and Science Academy. Because of the financial issues, Veno believes property taxes could increase.
According to abc27 records, Key Charter previously said it would cost between $6 million or $8 million to upgrade the old building. Veno said he is unaware of the last time the state offered funding for charter schools.
The mayor was asked where the funding would come from.
“I have not examined the necessary source of that financing,” he said. “So, I can't tell you.”
Papenfuse said Veno's goal is to privatize the school district, which the mayor is against. But, the father of three private school children said he believes in options for parents to educate their children.
Under Act 141, Veno has no authority over the school district or superintendent. When asked why his target is Veno and not those in power, Papenfuse responded, “I think it's odd you wouldn't think the CRO doesn't play a role.”