Are York school officials resting after recent small victories?

     A coalition of three Pennsylvania groups joined a rally of York students, parents and teachers against the proposed charterization of the struggling school district at Bethlehem Baptist Church in York, Pa.  (Image courtesy of PSEA Eastern and Southern Region Communications)

    A coalition of three Pennsylvania groups joined a rally of York students, parents and teachers against the proposed charterization of the struggling school district at Bethlehem Baptist Church in York, Pa. (Image courtesy of PSEA Eastern and Southern Region Communications)

    York’s school board quietly ran through its meeting agenda in about 30 minutes Wednesday.

    Quite a departure from recent public sessions that stretched for hours, with testimony from students, parents and teachers protesting the proposed charterization of the struggling school district.

    But a judge recently affirmed the district’s right to appeal his own ruling that granted the Pennsylvania Department of Education petition for receivership .

    Gov. Tom Wolf – who has opposed sweeping privatization of public education in his home county seat – took office last week. And earlier Wednesday, York elected officials met with him about city schools as part of his ongoing review of the matter.

    Board President Margie Orr says there’s no complacency.

    “There’s no let up for us,” she says.

    So maybe their meeting was strangely quiet because demonstrators had another venue. And some support from outside of York.

    “It could happen where they live”

    The Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools traveled two hours to join Orr, her board, teachers, union officials and community leaders at Bethlehem Baptist Church for a rally before the meeting. It wasn’t the first time they’ve rallied, together and in their home communities they joined efforts – and it probably won’t be the last.

    Philadelphia’s population is thirty times York’s. And charter schools there educate 60,000 students, versus a couple thousand in York.

    But protestors say the cities’ experiences with public education are similar. They’re poor, urban districts struggling with lagging student performance, funding losses and tighter state control, partly brought on by financial problems.

    “We need support coming from other areas because if this could happen here in York, it could happen where they live,” Orr says.

    How it happens

    York isn’t in a receivership – at least, not yet – but a lesser form of intervention through the Commonwealth’s Act 141 program for fiscally troubled public school districts.

    Fourteen criteria justify the Department of Education’s intervention and appointment of a Chief Recovery Officer. They’re all financial. Examples include successive years without a tax base increase and asking to get state aid ahead of schedule to keep paying the bills.

    Districts need to display only one; indeed, dozens do. 

    The Department of Education singled out eight districts, putting four on a watch list and another four – including York – under Act 141 supervision. 

    Part of the process involves coming up with a recovery plan with financial and academic improvement goals.

    Timelines are part of it, too, and consequences for failure, including privatization. 

    Receiverships in Duquesne and Chester-Upland were established after their boards refused to accept the plans.

    York’s board adopted one, but balked over the new teachers’ contract set out in the plan and resulting deal with Charter Schools USA. 

    “The plan as presented was basically selling our kids to a private company, and I find that morally unconscionable,” says John Hoffman, a retired school administrator who worked 34 years in the York City School District.

    The board cited unanswered questions and unaddressed concerns in tabling a contract vote, but that was enough to trigger the Department of Education to seek a receivership.

    Despite getting the requisite court approval, the receivership isn’t in effect pending appeals from the district and unions.

    Distress and discontent

    Yet protests continue.

    “We want to show people the fight isn’t over,” says State Education Association spokeswoman Laurie Lebo.

    But some say it’s too little, too late, for the struggling, cash-strapped school system where officials have proved resistant to suggestions from outsiders.

     “This could be the time for all of us to be on the same page, and come up with creative solutions that could be copied throughout the Commonwealth,” Hoffman says.

    That’s sort of the point of charter schools, Lebo acknowledges.

    Hoffman says details are key, though.

    Charter Schools USA representatives won’t speak to reporters until they have a contract in York.

    The Florida-based company operates 70 schools in seven states. None are in Pennsylvania, where the for-profit operator has hired lobbyists and would run schools in York with a nonprofit.

    If all of York’s district-run schools are converted, the city would be home to one of the largest all-charter school systems in the country.

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