Gene Veno, the chief recovery officer for the Harrisburg School District, questions from the public Thursday night at the Midtown Scholar Bookstore.
Parents, community members, and students took to the microphone to have their voices heard.
While some questions for Veno were technical and hard-hitting, others weren't as tough.
"Is there a way we don't have to wear uniforms?" one middle school student asked.
Veno jovially responded, "Well, that is not in the plan."
The grassroots group Harrisburg Hope conducted the open forum. This meeting's mood was a far cry from a public meeting nearly a week ago. Teachers and parents were in an uproar over the plan's cuts to employees and a 3.5 percent tax increase.
Veno said he enjoys the spirited debate, however, his plan for the school district's recovery isn't changing.
"The document is set ... it is now before the board," Veno said.
After five months of poking and prodding, the chief recovery officer of Harrisburg schools and his team of experts have unveiled their comprehensive plan for fiscal rescue.
"The children of this community is what this plan is about," chief recovery officer Gene Veno said Friday as he laid out the plan before a room full of school board members and concerned parents.
Veno began with the bleak: numbers have not wavered in recent weeks and the district still projects a $5.1 million budget gap for this school year. For next school year, Veno said the hole grows to $14.4 million. If the district continues on the same path, Veno said the budget woes could balloon to $39 million with an overall deficit of $131 million by 2018.
"I couldn't sugarcoat any of these numbers," he said. "I've reported what I saw."
Veno also noticed a struggling community.
After a 9.7 percent school tax hike seemed to be a probability, Veno told himself his team could do better. So, they did. Veno hoped a 3.5 percent hike would be more manageable for taxpayers.
While he did cut taxes, Veno suggested cuts to employee costs. The plan calls for an overall 10 percent cuts in benefits, salaries, and other costs. Over the next two years, Veno proposed a 5 percent wage reduction for all employees. The plan calls for the 2-year cut, a one-year wage freeze, then wages would rise again in years four and five.
"I don't like it," said Veno. "It's their families and I get it, but I'm asking for some shared responsibility and I'm asking for some shared risk here that could save the district."
Despite wage considerations, Veno vowed no layoffs or furloughs; an important statement because data shows students cannot afford fewer teachers. Out of Pennsylvania's 500 school districts, Harrisburg ranks 494. Student performance is rather dismal. Only 37 percent of students in the district are proficient in math and 35 percent are proficient in reading. Numbers from Veno also revealed Harrisburg graduates only 45 percent of students.
In order to stop the financial and academic bleeding, Veno offered remedies for healing. He suggested the district expand its Cougar Academy cyber school and sci-tech programs. Veno said there's a myriad of cost-saving measures that could be taken. He suggested the district reconfigure facilities to maximize the use of current operating building. The administration building on Front Street is currently leased for $40,000 a month. Veno plans to move those officers to another location, like the empty Lincoln School.
In order to streamline and manage day-to-day expenses, Veno would like to hire a CEO. Veno explained the move would free up the superintendent to focus on other responsibilities. The CEO would find cost cutting within the district's food, energy, and maintenance expenses.
"These are bold visions," he said. "These are bold and exciting times for this district."
Most would be glad to know that Veno had no plans to cut sports or performing arts. Rather, he is finding private sources of revenue to fund and expand those programs. There are incentives for school board members to approve Veno's plan by the next 30 days. Under Act 141, the district would qualify for a $6.4 million interest-free state loan. Those funds would implement many components of Veno's plan, such as hiring a CEO.
Veno warned board members and parents that if the board does not adopt his recovery plan by December 12, the district would then fall into state receivership. He said inaction would also lead to collapse.
"We can only succeed if we all unite and put our needs of the students first," he said.