Mayor calls for review of Harrisburg schools recovery plan

Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse is once again getting involved in the city’s school district. On Thursday, he sent a letter to acting Secretary of Education Carolyn Dumaresq.

Not so long after he sent Dumaresq a letter, Papenfuse made his sentiments known publicly. The letter expressed his concerns with the school district’s revised recovery plan, which was presented to the school board Monday night.

Chief Recovery Officer Gene Veno reworked the plan to include restoring full-day kindergarten, giving back partial pay for teachers and staff, and proposing the school district not need raise property taxes.

Revised academic benchmarks suggest the school should aim to hit 70 percent of its academic requirements this school year and 85 percent in 2014-2015. Papenfuse stated in his letter that the new benchmarks fail to meet the standards in the original plan, therefore lowering the bar of education for students.

Papenfuse explained the tactic does not improve education, but fudges the goals to make it seem like the schools are hitting its performance goals.

“They’re basically moving the goalposts,” he said. “They’re changing the way we do things. That is a problem. It’s a watering down of a promise the original plan, which was we would see measurable academic progress in the short term and the long term.”

Tim Eller, a spokesman for the Department of Education, said Dumaresq believes the plan is in the best interest of Harrisburg students, is achievable and will move the Harrisburg School District forward.

“Additionally, it appears that the mayor may not be aware of the new standards that are used in assessing academic achievement,” Eller said in a statement. “The revised plan incorporates changes that are necessary under the state’s approved federal No Child Left Behind waiver and includes academic measures assessed by the School Performance Profile, which is the new accountability system for public schools. The new standards in the plan are not “watered down” at all, they just use a new system to measure academic progress.

“The Department of Education believes that the revised recovery plan will enhance the academic future of the district by ensuring that students are provided with a high-quality education in a fiscally stable environment,” he said.

The mayor said the process to reevaluate academic progress was not a public process, and should involve other input.

“I would encourage the secretary of education to come out and explain the new measuring system and how it is different from the old measuring system in the plan,” Papenfuse said. “Let’s have a conversation about just how watered down it is.”

Veno said he believes the plan will become a model for all urban school districts in Pennsylvania.

Last month, Papenfuse said he called Dumaresq to request the state replace Veno as CRO. Papenfuse said the call was spurred after a conversation with Veno about academics and the superintendent. The state said it was too early to grade the academic progress in the school’s recovery plan, and they would not replace Veno.

On Thursday, Papenfuse said he still stands behind his call to oust Veno. The mayor said he suggested names, such as a recent former state education secretary who is interested in the job.

School Board president Jennifer Smallwood said she would not address the mayor’s letter. Superintendent Sybil Knight-Burney did not return repeated calls to her office for comment.

Councilwoman Sandra Reid said the mayor should not get his hands dirty in matters he does not control.

“The mayor needs to focus on the city, the $1.8 million deficit in his budget, the potholes, trash and sinkholes taking over his city,” Reid said.

“It influences everything else [The Administration] wants to do,” Papenfuse said. “I’ve said repeatedly, we will not have a successful recovery in the city unless our schools are strong.”

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