Penn Hills School District financial recovery ‘not just a numbers game’ for state-appointed officer
Daniel Matsook has a daunting task ahead of him.
As Penn Hills School District’s chief recovery officer appointed by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, Matsook is tasked with developing a plan to bring the financially struggling district back to solvency. Without one, the district could be placed into receivership, giving a state-appointed official full control over major decision-making regardless of what elected leaders want.
“I think I can come in here and make decisions that are going to be what’s best for what’s happening in classrooms here, because that’s what schools are all about,” said Matsook, 65, of Rochester. “I’m going to have that protective shield to make sure we impact classrooms minimally. I don’t want to bite off my nose to spite my face.”
Matsook acknowledges his mission will take a great deal of effort but believes there is a good chance the debt-ridden district can avoid receivership.
“If it was just a numbers game, you can get any accountant in here to do the work,” he said. “It’s not just a numbers game. It’s about preserving the integrity of a program that a community wants to be proud of, and that’s what I want to do.”
Matsook, who once worked as Wilkinsburg’s liaison during a transition of more than 200 middle and high school students to Pittsburgh Public Schools’ Westinghouse Academy, started his recovery work in Penn Hills Feb. 5.
He has 90 days to formulate a plan, which is expected to be approved by the state and the school board. Time extensions may be given considering the complexities of the issues.
“Mergers and partnerships are not viable options for this situation,” Matsook said. “Penn Hills’ situation is unique. It’s similar to someone who buys a very big house at a very high price and has a huge mortgage. Now they have to commit all this money to that mortgage and (it) has impacted them paying their bills everywhere else.”
Penn Hills is more than $172 million in debt largely due to the construction of a high school and elementary school.
Part of the planning process involves working with a special advisory committee of administrators, board members, education experts, community members and officials from neighboring schools. The committee formed Feb. 25.
Its first meeting is slated for March 7, with the first public update on its progress expected on March 21.
For Matsook, recent weeks have been dedicated to information gathering and meetings with administrators and department heads.
“My key here is I need to understand how the Penn Hills School District operates,” he said. “How do they run their education? How they run the business office?
“I need to understand all that before I make any key decisions. There is some room for some cost efficiencies across the board. How much room, I haven’t determined yet. The workforce will be impacted to some degree.”
In May 2016, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale published a report that he described as “one of the worst school audits” he’d ever seen. Among concerns DePasquale cited were alleged mismanagement of funds and district credit cards, bad business decisions and an alarming lack of oversight and internal controls.
Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. launched a grand jury investigation shortly after the audit release to determine if any criminal activity took place.
Matsook has a long history in the field of education, including a stint as Penn Hills’ assistant superintendent from 2002-04. After that, he led Beaver County’s Center Area School District, where he helped engineer a voluntary merger with neighboring Monaca, creating Central Valley School District.
He worked as an English teacher and high school administrator in the Freedom Area School District for 24 years prior to coming to Penn Hills.
He also serves as a facilitator of the Pennsylvania Inspired Leadership Program, which delivered professional development to school administrators.
Matsook was selected by the state as a recovery officer from three candidates.
“His credentials were impressive,” PDE Press Secretary Eric Levis said. “The primary concern is the district’s structural deficit, caused in large part by their debt service. Academically, the school district is on very sound footing. PDE conducted a curriculum audit and gave the district high marks for their rigorous course offerings.”
Michael DiVittorio is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Michael at 412-871-2367, [email protected] or via Twitter .