Chester Upland District Runs Out of Money, Lawsuits Underway

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

The Chester Upland School District, one of the poorest and lowest performing school systems in the state of Pennsylvania, has run out of money. The current school board and administration, which gets about 70 percent of its budget from the state, say they need an advance of $18.7 million, which had previously been promised by the state.

Hoping to avoid a shutdown, the school filed a lawsuit against the state January 12, declaring a “cash-flow crisis” and asking a judge to force Pennsylvania State Education Secretary Ronald Tomalis to infuse cash immediately into the district so that it may continue to educate K-12 students.

Meanwhile, teachers and staff have vowed to continue working and keep the schools open, but many parents, fearful of a negative outcome from the courts and state, are seeking other options to educate their children.

According to the lawsuit, between 2006 and 2010 the district’s budget rose from $85 million to $113 million and the workforce grew from 590 to 735. Enrollment over that same period fell from 4,600 to 3,700. The complaint suggests that the district’s charter school payments, about $43 million for the current school year, have contributed to its financial crisis. Deflated real estate values responsible for low tax revenue to support the schools, combined with the near-inability to pay taxes from an economically disadvantaged population, make the Chester Upland school district a public education conundrum.

The district was declared financially distressed by the state in 1994, when it was taken over by a state oversight board. Then, in 2001, the system was handed over to the for-profit education management organization Edison Schools which left only four years later. Edison claimed they had not been paid millions of dollars in fees.

At this time, the state of Pennsylvania is expressing concern that the Chester Upland district is mismanaging its finances. According to Tim Eller, an Education Department spokesman, advancing the money will not fix the endemic problem with the district. “The mismanagement of money is the utmost concern,” he said.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that on January 13 a bipartisan group of Delaware County lawmakers issued a written appeal to Governor Corbett (R). They requested that the state declare the district financially distressed, which would trigger a state takeover. State Rep. Thaddeus Kirkland, D-159 of Chester, has requested that the state’s Auditor General Jack Wagner, look at the district’s finances.

“The Governor looks forward to meeting with lawmakers on the issue at the earliest possible time,” said Janet Kelley, Corbett’s spokeswoman. All this discussion does not calm anxious parents who are considering sending their children to private or parochial schools, or sending them to live with relatives so they can go to other public schools.

Mori Hitchcock senior at Science and Discovery High, and co-organizer of January’s student walk-out and march to Chester City Hall, feels that students need to be involved in the conversation regarding funding of the district. Hitchcock said that he was “fighting for the students who need their voices heard and for the teachers who can’t speak up.”

Last month, a federal judge ordered the state to advance $3.2 million to Chester Upland. However, that amount is only enough to cover the school district’s expenses until February 23, which is the court date for the lawsuit filed by the district. The district is seeking funds to keep the Chester schools open through June. In the meantime, local legislators have been meeting with residents to help discuss finding a solution to the crisis. State Rep. Kirkland hosted a community meeting on January 20, while State Senator Dominic Pileggi, R-9 of Chester, hosted a public meeting on January 27, along with State Rep. William Adolph, R-165 of Springfield later that day.

At the end of last month, a bipartisan group of six Republican and five Democrat Pennsylvania legislators met privately with Governor Corbett and Education Secretary Ron Tomalis to explore stop-gap measures to fund the district for now, and long-term solutions to the district’s continuing financial troubles.

State Senator Daylin Leach suggested that such a plan might include supplemental legislative appropriations. However, according to Tim Eller, spokesperson for the Education Department, “there was no commitment on funding” as of yet.

To counter any heightened concern about that statement, Corbett’s office said “we understand the stress that this situation is putting on [students] and their families, and we want to assure them that they will be able to finish the school year at Chester Upland,” which needs about $20 million to complete the school year. Charter schools in Chester, also funded by taxes and the state, are on the brink of collapse as well. The students and parents at the Chester Community Charter school plan to present their financial information to Tomalis by February 10. Tomalis said that he will issue a report on how the schools can proceed by March 10.

But the district is not entirely depending on the swiftness of Harrisburg for immediate help. Teachers have vowed to keep teaching, without pay, to educate the students in Chester, and they are accepting help from whomever offers. Last week, Columbus Elementary in Chester got a windfall of $100,000.00 from department store JC Penney when a Chester Upland teacher appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, which is sponsored by the retailer.

Sara Ferguson, the elementary school teacher, became a national symbol for dedicated educators when Michelle Obama invited her as a guest to witness President Obama deliver the State of the Union address.

“We’re doing everything we can to keep the district running, particularly for programs which serve the special education students and the seniors,” said Thom Persing, acting deputy superintendent. “But much more is needed if the Chester Upland School District is to survive.”

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