Acting super: Harrisburg schools financial problems worse than many thought

Harrisburg

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — Millions mismanaged and missing.

Harrisburg School District Acting Superintendent Dr. John George said the two biggest issues the receivership team faced after taking over on July 1 are basic pillars of a functioning school district.

Alarm bells had been ringing months before receivership, but once the team got inside, it appeared to be more concerning than many thought.

“It’s probably worse. The business practices were entirely irregular,” George said, “It’s probably failure of leadership at all levels.”

Two of the biggest issues were managing the approximate $12 million the district heavily relies on and a basic principle: calculating how many employees are in the district.

“It’s taken us a few months to go employee by employee to see if they’re getting a paycheck they’re actually showing up for work,” George said.

Just showing up to work is no longer good enough. If employees aren’t competent, the new leadership will fire them. It’s harsh but necessary to regain community trust, George said.

“Once we’re ready to turn the district back over to local control, the community has to embrace that process moving forward,” said Chris Celmer, the acting assistant superintendent.

Moving forward means more complex math, like the budget. The previous administration overestimated the 2019-2020 budget by nearly $7 million. 

“We can’t substantiate or verify where they got their numbers, and we’re confident that the numbers that we have are accurate,” George said.

It’s accurate, but not pretty: a $2.6 million hole. There is a long-term plan to balance the books, including the sale of properties like William Penn High School which has been on the market for a decade. 

“The new administration has re-engaged that process, and we are actively looking for interested parties,” Celmer said.

New leaders and a new vision are in place so the schools can get back to a very old mission. 

“We want to move the district forward, and really we want to get to academics,” Celmer said.

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