Harrisburg school board hires controversial solicitor; criticized by auditor general


HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – Pennsylvania’s elected fiscal watchdog says the Harrisburg School Board is refusing to cooperate with auditors working for the state Department of Education.

It comes on the same day that the board voted 5-4 to hire James Ellison as the district’s new in-house solicitor.

Ellison, who has been accused of wrongdoing and shady activities at multiple Pennsylvania school districts, was voted in after board member Lionel Gonzalez decided to change his vote from an April 15 meeting where he voted no.

Gonzalez said Monday that he misunderstood who he was voting for one week ago, and after three other board members requested it, a special meeting was called by board president Danielle Robinson. She addressed concerns that “the fix is in” and that the board isn’t being transparent with Ellison’s hiring.

“We have gone through the process, we put out an RFP (request for proposal) for candidates who wanted to apply for this job,” Robinson said, saying they interviewed two people. “Everything that goes onto the agenda is talked about in a committee. Nothing moves forward from that committee unless the board members agree to move it forward for a vote. It’s then posted on the website so the public can see what was talked about in these committee meetings.”

But longtime Harrisburg resident Melanie Cook said as a taxpayer, she feels left in the dark.

“It’s virtually impossible to get anyone to explain any decision that is made,” Cook said. “You have a body that literally provides no information at any level to the citizens. You come in here and we watch a cage fight for three or four hours. It’s completely unacceptable.”

The meeting was heated at times, with frustrations between the board members themselves and between the public rather evident. Board member Carrie Fowler doesn’t understand why last week’s vote didn’t count.

“This is not urgent, that you called for us to be back here, sitting here one week later on something we already voted on,” said Fowler. “I think the process was flawed on how we interviewed for solicitors. I think we need to open it back up.” 

Ellison’s hiring passed with a 5-4 vote. His supporters said there is an obvious witch hunt for a man who has never been convicted of any crimes.

“His license was never suspended or revoked,” said board member Ellis Roy.

He joined Robinson, Gonzalez, Lola Lawson, and Patricia Whitehead-Myers in voting for Ellison. Brian Carter, Carrie Fowler, Judd Pittman, and Joe Brown voted against Ellison.

Court documents show Ellison owes $3,133.90 in business taxes and penalties to the city and to the district. Ellison did not attend the special meeting and calls for comment were not returned.

Another topic clouding Monday’s meeting: Auditor General Eugene DePasquale’s comments released earlier in the day where he said he’s “deeply troubled” by the board’s vote April 15 to not cooperate with a Department of Education audit that began last October.

“Given the district’s past financial scandals and ongoing budgetary issues, board members should demonstrate a greater degree of transparency,” DePasquale said in a statement.

The school district has been operating under state-imposed financial recovery status since 2012.

“Out of consideration for the work that’s been achieved to date, I hope school board members will wake up and cooperate,” DePasquale said.

DePasquale’s last audit of Harrisburg schools in 2015 found the district was struggling with excessive debt, declining tax revenues, and a sharp increase in payments to charter schools.

Robinson said they voted no because she believes the Education Department wants unfettered access.

“What they’re asking for is for a third party to have access to personal, financial records of employees,” she said. “When we say what is it that you want and we don’t get an answer, why would we give complete access to employee’s personal and financial information?”

Disagreements, yelling from the audience and inner-board spats also contributed to the meeting’s overall contentious tone. It should have been a time to focus on change that matters, Fowler said.

“[Hire] a business manager, a CFO, a full-time, permanent principal at John Harris High School, all the things that focus on the learner,” Fowler said.

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