Is There a Catch in Receiver Plan?

The Duquesne School District is about to move into the next step of school district financial recovery under state law as the Secretary of Education has just asked the County Common Pleas Court to appoint the person who has been acting as chief recovery officer to become a receiver under Act 141 as the Duquesne School Board opted to reject the plan to send the remaining students of the District (all of elementary age) to neighboring districts. That request has been made on a voluntary basis (several have already said they won’t) so there is a possibility that a state mandate would come to pass.

The court does not have to take the person nominated by the Secretary to be the receiver; it can name its own or ask for an alternate. Whoever becomes the receiver essentially becomes the school board, except the receiver cannot levy or raise taxes. The receiver has the power to implement the recovery plan, communicate with the state on a quarterly basis, make sure employees of the district are following the plan, tell the school board to raise taxes, and go to court to get a directive to get employees to comply with the recovery plan.

The act says that receivership is to terminate three years after the receiver is appointed unless the state petitions the court for an extension. Even after receivership is terminated the district remains in oversight from the state for a five year period, most likely to ensure that the district does not slip back into distress.

Duquesne Doubly Distressed

In the historical record, the month of June has not been a kind one to the City of Duquesne. In June of 1991, on the 20th to be exact, Duquesne was declared financially distressed. Five years ago, in June of 2007, the Board of Control that administers the school district decided to close the high school and send students to one of two nearby school districts. The Control Board has a contract with the Allegheny Intermediate Unit to perform much of the management functions for the District.

There seems to be little positive news for either the City or the District. The City recently sold its sewer system to a neighboring municipal authority because it did not want to face the cost of upgrades (estimated at $14 million). The City is levying a higher wage tax on its residents and non-residents who work there under Act 47. There is no indication the City will be exiting its status anytime soon.

There are 348 students in the District according to an annual report to the Legislature from last month, and the Commonwealth spent $10.8 million, close to 70% of the District’s revenues, in the 2010-11 school year. The rates of PSSA proficiency are poor and the District has failed to meet adequate yearly progress the last two years. Plans were announced to move seventh and eighth grade students to neighboring districts, but that would hinge on legislative changes.

Time to Give School Choice a Serious Look

Pennsylvania’s State Supreme Court has ruled the law authorizing Duquesne high school students to be sent to neighboring districts is unconstitutional. They wrote in their opinion that the law was so narrowly constructed, applying only to the Duquesne School District, that it amounted to "special legislation" which violates the state constitution. They are remanding the matter back to Commonwealth Court. But the big question remains: what happens to these students?

During the debate to close Duquesne High School in 2007, state law was crafted which stipulated that the students’ options were constrained to districts within a three-mile radius of their home district. The end result had 160 students transfer to West Mifflin and 72 to East Allegheny. Attorneys argued at that time the law was so narrowly defined, that it would only apply to Duquesne and no other district across the state–and the Supreme Court upheld that argument three years later.

The legislators who constructed the law will attempt to come up with new language that will not run afoul of the Constitution. Here’s a better idea: vouchers. Craft a law that offers vouchers to these students so that they can attend the school of their choice. Their district has obviously failed them, so give them a chance to find one where they can achieve success. If they are happy in the new districts, let them stay. If not, give them a chance to find another opportunity. Vouchers have been successful in many places where they have been tried–usually the answer to failing schools like Duquesne–so why not give it a serious look?