Although one gets the lion's share of the attention, there are two official “recovery” processes occurring in Harrisburg, and it's hard to say which is more vital to the city's future — restoring the financial health of the municipality or the viability of its schools.
The district's financial recovery officer, appointed four months ago by the state, sat down with the Business Journal last week for a candid Q&A. His assessment put in stark terms what's at stake. Gene Veno used words such as "dire" and noted that the goal is not to improve or set a new course for the district but to "save" it.
It's hard to think of a time over more than a decade that the Harrisburg School District hasn't been in crisis. Even as costs per pupil rose to some of the highest in the commonwealth, graduation rates and student achievement on standardized tests plunged.
The district is looking at roughly a $140 million annual operating budget for next school year and a current operating deficit of about $5.2 million. Like the city, bond obligations represent an additional burden on the budget beyond salaries, pension obligations and actual instructional costs. Sources of new revenue are limited, hence the school board's decision to go above Act 1 limits on property taxes next year.
And, of course, the situation makes it harder to attract or retain residents and businesses.
Yet people are eager to live in the midstate. Elsewhere in the Business Journal today, we report that our area is home to three of the fastest-growing counties in Pennsylvania — Lancaster, Lebanon and Cumberland, just across the river from Harrisburg. Dauphin County is in the Top 20, but the majority of that growth is outside the city.
A number of developers continue to have faith in the city, however, making investments in new enterprises, repurposing old buildings for high-end housing and doing what they can to enhance its amenities. But they can't do it alone.
Veno was charged with creating a plan, with community input, to enable a rebirth of the city's schools financially and academically. He is scheduled to present it next week. That plan's success will depend on cooperation from stakeholders ranging from taxpayers and teachers to parents and political leaders.
This is a vibrant time for the midstate. Opportunities lost in Harrisburg, though — both for the young people relying on the schools to prepare them for the future and the residents and businesses that could benefit from stable growth — will be impossible to recapture if the city fails to show signs of recovery on all fronts.