Barely a week has passed since the School Reform Commission publicized its controversial, “Blueprint for Transforming Philadelphia’s Public Schools,” and charter school leaders are letting it be known they will fight any plan that attacks per-pupil funding or forces charters schools to adopt an enrollment cap.
Specifically, charter school educators are taking umbrage with the SRC’s plan to slash $149 million from charter school funding, which represents a whopping seven percent drop in per-pupil funding. The plan also calls for a three-year freeze on per-pupil payments, and finally, the enforcement of a mutually agreed upon growth schedule. SRC officials believe it can balance its budget in five years if these and other cuts are implemented.
“In my view, the [budget] issue should not be balanced on the backs of charter schools. The reality is, I don’t go along with that, and it’s not acceptable,” said state Representative Dwight Evans, who was among the leaders of the charter school movement nearly two decades ago, when he introduced legislation supporting the charter model. “First, let’s be clear, this is supposed to be about kids and parents, and there’s nothing in the law that gives the SRC the legal ability to [arbitrarily reduce payments]. There is nothing in the act, one way or the other, for the district to do this.”
Evans was referring to the Act 22 Charter School Legislation of 1997, and most charter proponents point to subsection 17-1723 (d), which states that, “enrollment of students in a charter school or cyber charter school shall not be subject to a cap or otherwise limited to any past or future action of a board of school directors … or any other authority, unless agreed to by the charter school or cyber charter school as part of a written charter.”
“We fought 15 years to get that law passed; 15 years we fought for the parents to have options, and we won’t let the school district mess with the kids,” Evans said, crediting longtime educator and attorney Dr. Walter D. Palmer as being an early leading protagonist of the cause. “The school district has its own ineptness, but we will not let them do this.
“Politically, they must not think of bringing this through Harrisburg, because I wouldn’t support it,” Evans said.
Palmer, at the forefront of the charter issue for almost three decades and who served as major supporter of the mid-’90s legislation, recently took the school district to court over the district’s attempts to cap enrollment at his successful Walter D. Palmer Leadership Learning Partners Charter School. According to Palmer, the school district has unfairly targeted the charter school system while ignoring both the achievements and gains made by the charters — and the district’s own mismanagement of resources and funds.
“The district has been repressive to charter schools for at least ten years,” Palmer said, placing much of the blame of the perceived public school — charter school friction at the feet of former superintendent Arlene Ackerman and former SRC chairman Robert Archie. “All of this is really an all-out assault on the charter school movement, but [the SRC] cannot circumvent the court.”
Palmer has defied the SRC’s cap measure by continuing to accept students, and billing the state directly. Twice, Palmer said, the courts have agreed with him, and ruled the district must reimburse Leadership Learning more than $1.3 million in outstanding per-pupil payments. The district is currently exhausting its appeals in that matter and Palmer expects a ruling sometime next month.
Palmer recently testified in a City Council hearing helmed by City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, who is also the chair of Council’s education committee. There, Palmer made a series of suggestions to the SRC that he believes would help correct the problem.
“I suggested one of the things they do is completely dismantle renaissance schools, which are not charters. They are failed public schools that are reconstituted by the district and controlled by the district, but they then ask a charter school operator to come in and operate them; they are not charter schools,” Palmer said. “Then, I suggested they take those schools and turn them into promise academies. I also said they need to consolidate the mothballed schools; you have William Penn High School on Broad Street that’s sitting empty and costs a fortune to maintain.”
Some of the plans Palmer and other educators suggested — some going back years, if not decades — have finally made their way into the SRC’s reorganization blueprint, such as downsizing the central office; decentralizing certain services and generally trying to trim operations. But the decision to make these cuts came years after continual warnings.
Palmer said the school district really doesn’t have an excuse; the charter school legislation has been in place since 1997, and instead of working in conjunction with charter schools, it seems to him the district is bent on destroying them.
“Stop trying to bash charter schools,” Palmer said. “What we are experiencing now is a white hostile takeover of Black education in America. Folks have realized there are millions and millions to be made [in corporate education] right in the heart of the Black community, and this is happening in urban Black districts with Black folks on their watch.”
The issue of capped enrollment is very real; and doesn’t just affect Philadelphia and its stable of charter schools, as the Chester Upland Charter School recently won the right to uncapped enrollment. Basically, if a charter school is allowed uncapped enrollment, it can then theoretically build other schools to house the added enrollment, provided they meet staffing, safety and academic guidelines.
“They’ve gotten to a point where the school district is bankrupt; why should charters have to pay for the school district’s inability to manage its budget?” said Dr. Veronica Joyner, founder and chief administrative officer of the Mathematics, Civics and Sciences Charter School of Philadelphia. “And now, [the SRC] is giving us less. Are they expecting the charters to fail, since they are taking money away instead of rewarding us?”
Like Palmer’s school, MCSCS has made Adequate Yearly Progress in consecutive years, and both its financial and academic records are strong. Joyner, like Palmer, is worried about the possibility of working with fewer funds.
“I am totally concerned about that,” said Joyner, who also serves as president and founder of Parents United for Better Schools, Inc. “The school district already takes almost 30 percent of the allotment given to us by the state. Now they want us to contribute more money when it’s not our failure. Charters are doing good, and there should be more support, not less.”
Joyner said she has a waiting list 7,000-plus students’ strong, which points to the academic prowess of her school. She believes that charters are a unique educational necessity that warrants saving.
“We’re talking about a school district that has failed,” Joyner said. “That budget didn’t just creep up on them like that — it’s been creeping up on them for years, and I am appalled no one saw that and did anything about it. We are already operating on much less than the public schools do. Now they are going to cut us, and expect us to do a better job with less.
“This is not fair to charter school operators, or the families we serve,” Joyner continued. “Because we are expected to do a better job than public schools — and we’ve shown that we are capable of doing that — we should have more support.”
Instead of aiming at charter schools, Joyner said, more attention should be paid to the district’s hierarchy and its plans for a new leader, since direction will no doubt come from on high. Joyner has been in education for more than 40 years, and senses a recurring pattern by the SRC.
“The district usually goes outside of Philadelphia to find a superintendent, and that has always been its first failure,” Joyner said. “My concern is we keep getting people who, on paper, can do these things, but come in and leave the district in a worse state. There are people right here in Philadelphia who can lead the district. I question [the SRC’s] motives.”
The Chester Upland School District has reached a tentative agreement to settle a pair of lawsuits it filed against the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE).
The settlement calls for the state to relieve Chester Upland of millions of dollars it owes and provide an additional $9.7 million in funding for the 2012–13 school year. U.S. District Judge Michael Baylson revealed the agreement in a federal court order. A hearing for preliminary approval of the settlement is slated for July 27. A hearing for final approval is scheduled for Aug. 15.
“This settlement is some of the best news the district has received in a long time,” said Michael Churchill, attorney at Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, who represents a group of Chester Upland parents and students in the lawsuit. “The state will provide relief to Chester Upland from its current financial liabilities to vendors, staff and to the charter schools, and it will provide a boost in funding for the new financial fiscal year of $9.7 million, which was in the state budget that was recently passed.
“Overall, the district will still be a very under-funded district. The district had to cut many of its programs last year - including art, music, foreign language, and some of its other electives. It’s not clear yet which programs will be able to be restored with these funds, but this settlement will lead Chester Upland in the right direction. I believe that things will start to look up for district and its students.”
Chester Upland filed a federal lawsuit against the state after it ran out of funding in January. That suit also spawned a similar lawsuit in the state court system. Both suits are part of the settlement agreement, the district confirmed.
In suing the state, the district sought to prevent its schools from closing and argued the state was not providing the funding necessary for Chester Upland to meet its lawful obligation to special education students.
Baylson first ordered PDE to provide Chester Upland with $3.2 million to keep schools open for several weeks. Eventually, the sides reached an agreement for PDE to cover the critical vendor payments needed to keep schools operating. The settlement agreement appears to have PDE picking up the remainder of that tab, which totals close to $30 million.
“This budget will make up for the cuts that were made in the prior year,” Churchill said. “The lack of funding was what prevented the school district from being able to provide mandated special education services to students. It was also the reason behind bringing the case.
“Through this agreement, the district will remain open and provide sufficient funds for its students. The parties still have to work out how the money will be used appropriately for special education students, so that the agreement is carried out. They have until July 16 to draft the settlement papers and submit them to the court.”
Chester Upland has a history of mismanagement of funds. In 2000, Chester Upland was declared financially distressed by the PDE, resulting in a state takeover. In 2007, PDE issued a declaration stating that the Special Board of Control of the Chester Upland School District had operated the district well enough to reestablish a good financial structure.
As a result of this declaration, the Special Board of Control was replaced by a new three-member Empowerment Board of Control to address the district’s poor educational performance while managing its fiscal condition. In 2010, the Education Empowerment Act expired and the elected board assumed leadership of the district.
“I don’t think the state needs to take over the district again,” Churchill said. “When the state took Chester Upland over, they did not bring much improvement to the district. Having a state takeover is not an automatic solution to this problem. I don’t think another state takeover is necessary, but this settlement is proof that the district is heading in the right direction.
“Both students and parents should continue to be knowledgeable about everything going on with the school district. Parents should continue to attend board meeting and students should continue to let their parents know what’s taking place in their schools. We want to continue to ensure everyone that we are doing everything we can to ensure a bright future for the district, students, and parents.”
The Chester Upland School District can now count the Chester Community Charter School as an ally in CUSD’s fight to keep its doors open and for an increase to the state’s education budget for Chester.
With that in mind, more than 100 parents of students in Chester boarded a pair of buses on Tuesday to hand deliver petitions signed by more than 1,000 people to Gov. Tom Corbett’s office; the group also sat in on a Senate education committee hearing.
“What we accomplished was obtaining a greater recognition amongst the legislators and the governor’s office of the real role that Chester Community Charter School has in that community,” said Chester Community Charter School spokesman A. Bruce Crawley. “It is unfair to balance the woes of the state budget on the backs of students in Chester.”
Crawley said the parents were “respectful, yet resolute,” when they first met with Corbett’s staff before taking in the Senate hearing. Although Corbett himself was unavailable, Corbett’s staff promised to deliver the petitions and inform the governor of the action by the group of parents.
Count Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams as one of the elected officials supportive of the movement.
“I was impressed and inspired; it bought me to ask questions of the Education Secretary in regard to funding,” said Williams, who sits on the Senate Education Committee. “I am very grateful they showed up, and it’s very important. I am very interested in this matter.”
Lost in the broiling debate between Chester Upland School District and the state over the education budget is that CUSD and the CCCS represent the very same thing: the education of Chester students.
There is no hostility between the two education providers; in fact, both rely on, and need each other, if both are to exist.
“There are people who long believe charter schools take money from the school district, and that is a misperception,” Crawley said. “The reality is, when a kid is no longer in a school district and the parent opts to send him or her to a charter school, the Pennsylvania Department of Education provides funding [for that student] to the charter school.
“Those funds are restricted,” Crawley continued. “Those funds were never intended to be a part of the school district’s budget.”
Crawley said that the school district acts like a conduit for the state to get money to the charter school; it’s that mode of money transfer that sometimes confuses people, Crawley explained, but it is how the laws were drawn up — and doesn’t mean the state is somehow funding charter schools and not the school district, or vice versa.
“We had research done last week. … 40 percent of Chester Upland parents also have a child in the Chester Community Charter School, so these kids are living in the same house,” Crawley said. “The parents don’t want either-or; they want them both to be funded — and for both to provide an excellent education.
“This [friction] is just something that has been created; it’s a fallacy.”
Crawley illuminated his point further by noting that Chester Community Charter School only serves students from kindergarten through eighth grade, and all Chester high school students are generally routed through the CUSD.
“There’s no way for anybody to be against one or the other; we said we want our schools funded — both schools,” Crawley said. “The parents went up there and fought for both.”
Williams, also wanted to clarify the relation among the two schools and the state.
“That’s the whole point: charter schools are public schools, just like magnet schools are,” Williams said. “People need to accept the fact that charter schools are publicly driven, — although they work on a lesser budget — are still proctored the same way. It would be shocking if Chester Upland did only allow funding for certain schools.”
“Even the most hard-hearted elected official can see there’s no viable option other than to provide the funding,” Crawley said. “So we are cautiously optimistic.”
When Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett unveiled his school reform plan last fall, he said, “When we have failing schools, we know we have failing students.”
Except as the case study of the Chester Upland School District shows, it’s not the kids who are failing. It is we as a commonwealth who are failing them.
There is nothing unusual, unfortunately, in school systems facing bankruptcy — Philadelphia and Reading are alarmingly wobbly. But Corbett’s refusal to advance funds that are due to be distributed to Chester Upland later this year — and his willingness to leave 3,650 mostly low-income youths from the district with literally no place to learn — has made some of us who invest in the district wondering what he is thinking.
A recent order from a federal district court judge to transfer $3.2 million to the district has averted a total shutdown. Now the governor says that the schools will stay open for the rest of the year. The crisis isn’t over, though, not in Chester Upland or the commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
The bitter debate about who is responsible for this disaster has essentially been a replay of the battle that warring educational ideologies have been fighting for two decades. Along the way, the well-being of children, their community and Pennsylvania’s economy are being ignored. How can we expect these students to grow into productive, law-abiding, responsible adults when today’s leaders can’t deliver the most basic building block of education?
It isn’t the children or their families who are to blame. It is the elected and appointed officials who opt not to invest in their future. Numerous studies have proven the net savings and benefits from investments in education.
A study by the Economic Policy Institute projected that providing universal pre-school in Pennsylvania would have an 8:1 benefit by 2050. Studies also highlight the financial impact of the education gap. A report by the McKinsey Corp. showed that if minority student performance had reached white students by 1998, the GDP in 2009 would have been between $310 billion and $525 billion higher — or approximately 2 percent to 4 percent of GDP. The report also says the achievement gaps in this country are the same as having “a permanent national recession.”
Cutting the dropout rate in half would yield $45 billion annually in new federal tax revenues or cost savings, according to a report by Columbia University’s Center for Benefit-Cost Studies of Education at Teachers College.
With its budget cuts, the commonwealth is reneging on our 150-year social contract to provide a quality education for all children, the kind of education that provided a lifeline to earlier generations and that enables the mobility that is central to the American dream. And it is the sort of regressive thinking that will saddle our grandchildren with ongoing social costs.
It isn’t fair and it isn’t smart. Helping children overcome the barriers they face from poverty (and its companion, violence) is the leading educational challenge of our time, and the only way to deal adequately with a sagging economy.
Budget cuts in state education funding have forced all Pennsylvania’s public school systems to cut back. But because the poorer districts rely more on state funding, the cuts affect their students more profoundly. These young people have been denied opportunities that children in wealthier districts still enjoy. They have been devalued, under-educated and not provided the tools they need to succeed.
This goes well beyond Chester, and it has ramifications beyond even individual successes and failures. “Many of these students, (who) have seen so much tragedy, loss and rejection in 16 years than most will see in a lifetime now ... are hit again,” a Chester Upland teacher emailed Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post. When the students thought about the possibility of being sent to other school districts, the teacher wrote, a common response was, “they won’t do that; nobody wants us.” Is this the Pennsylvania we have become? Is this the national and international news we want to create?
We at the Stoneleigh Foundation have seen what a modest investment in Chester’s young people can accomplish. Expanding youth courts in several Chester Upland schools and from there to the rest of Pennsylvania is helping young people who have been in trouble to learn respect, practice responsibility and become more engaged in school. Imagine what adequate and stable state funding could mean to them.
We owe all our children more than they are getting. We owe it to ourselves and to the next generation to support an educational system where they can not only survive but thrive.
Gov. Corbett had it right last fall when he said, “We can’t guarantee their success, but we owe all students a fighting chance. We’re talking about our children, and we owe it to them to reform the system.” Fine words, but they need determined actions to back them up. — (AP)
Cathy Weiss is executive director of the Stoneleigh Foundation, which funds the work of Greg Volz who launched youth courts in the Chester Upland School District.
The Chester Fund (TCF) recently announced it has been approved to open a charter school in the Chester Upland School District.
In January, the Chester Upland School Board voted to deny TCF’s application to open a charter school. In the spring, TCF brought an appeal before the Charter School Appeal Board in Harrisburg. The Appeal Board made its decision on July 24. The school will be called The Chester Charter School of the Arts (CCSA) and will open September 10.
“It was a long process for us in order to get the final approval to open up a charter school,” said Don Delson, vice-chair of the Chester Fund Board. “But we stayed the coarse and remained positive through it all. I am extremely happy about the decision the Appeal Board made and I’m looking forward to the kids in Chester receiving a quality education. They have great potential and deserve to realize it.”
The new school, which will be at 200 Commerce Drive in Aston, will start off with Kindergarten through the sixth grade. The school will continue to add a grade each year. Pre-Kindergarten will start in 2013. The funds raised for the charter will provide specialized arts and academic programming. Students in the Chester Upland School District are eligible to attend.
“The education that we offer all of the kids in the United States is not good enough,” said John Alston, founder of TCF. “The education that is being offered in struggling communities is shameful. It’s unacceptable that the kids with the least support receive the worst education. For years, I dreamed about excellent schools for all of the kids of Chester, and I know I’m not done until every kid in Chester has that opportunity.”
In 2008, TCF formed a partnership with the Chester Upland School District to create the Chester Upland School of the Arts (CUSA). Last fall, CUSA’s educational programs were compromised and 70 percent of CUSA’s staff was furloughed because of massive cuts in the school district budget and state education funding. TCF later decided to terminate the partnership with the district and apply to open a charter school.
In addition to the core curriculum, the school will have classes in theater, music, dance, Spanish, studio art and computer technology. An extended after-school program in academics and the arts will begin in January 2013. About 320 students will be enrolling this fall. Anna Hadgis will serve as principal of CCSA.
“The students who attend our school will be able to read about the Harlem Renaissance,” Alston said. “They will be able to study the transformation of the Black middle class, learn the early music of Duke Ellington, play jazz and the blues, and see paintings of artists during that time period. We want our sixth- and seventh-graders to have a whole semester of studying Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. During that semester, we would want the students to write a five-minute dialogue between Dr. King and Thomas Jefferson and perform it in front of the class.
“These are just some of the things that we want to do at our school. Our goal is to have the integration of academic work and the arts programs. The music teachers will be working very closely with the classroom teachers, so that they can develop themes and projects that the children will experience both in the classroom and in the arts program. We want our students to understand that there is always a social context for their art.”
The Chester Upland School District – one of the poorest in the state and already suffering from previous painful fiscal cuts – does not have enough money to pay its teachers, and its last hope is that the commonwealth will release emergency funds next week, which would allow the district to pay its staff and keep school doors open.
However, judging from previous statements from Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett’s office – including accusations of gross financial negligence by the school district’s board of directors – it seems unlikely the district will receive the money.
Last December, state Education Secretary Ron Tomalis denied an initial request for emergency funds, citing mismanagement examples such as the rehiring of furloughed staff, which cost the district roughly $6.45 million.
But in the end, it’s the students who will suffer, as these cuts call for the merging of two schools, laying off more than 100 staff and reducing the district budget by $18 million.
In fact, times are so hard at the school district that Danyel Jennings, a mother of two students currently enrolled there, started an online campaign at Change.org, petitioning for signatures to convince Corbett to release funds to the cash-strapped district.
“Our kids and their futures are in jeopardy,” Jennings said through a statement released by Change.org, the grassroots-based community website that takes up causes and issues for those wishing to begin an earnest and effective protest. “They deserve to have teachers who actually get paychecks for their work, and a school district that will be reliably open for the full school year.
“We have to get our schools on the right track, so kids like mine don’t have to suffer for the mistakes of the school district.” Jennings and other parents recently held a candlelight vigil outside the school district offices.
Tim Eller, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, sees the situation much differently, and believes the state did as much as possible for the struggling district.
“This mishandling of money is systemic and has been going on for years. In the spring of 2011, during the 2010-2011 school year, the district was facing near-bankruptcy, couldn’t meet payroll or pay bond holders…but the department did step in, did provide money and appropriations − $9.5 million above and beyond − to help get them through the problems they were facing,” Eller said. “During that same year, they asked for an advance on the next budget, and the department again stepped in and assisted, and also provided advice to help them.
“Nearly all the suggestions were totally ignored.”
Eller says the Chester Upland School District has a history of management miscues, including delaying $27 million in invoices and fees from the previous school year to the current one; mounting unpaid invoices and its refusal to pay in to unemployment compensation, special education programs or charter schools. Then there’s the rehiring of staff without the budget to pay them.
“The hiring back, without the ability to pay them, is very concerning,” Eller said, adding that this was just one of many examples of hubris on the part of the school district. “Every school district or business budgets for unemployment costs. That was $2.2 million that the district did not budget for. It’s a systemic fiscal management problem, an organizational problem that has progressed in that school district. That $18 million would only be a Band-Aid on the issues [the school district] claims. The problem is, we will be back in this same position in a couple of months.”
The Chester Upland School District joins a growing list of both public and parochial school districts facing similar cuts and funding decreases.
The Philadelphia School District announced that it will soon close as many as nine schools, and the Philadelphia Archdiocese also announced that it was shuttering as many as 48.
The Philadelphia School District has seen its student ranks decrease exponentially over the past decade, and now only has about 150,000 students enrolled throughout the system – not including the estimated 70,000 unoccupied seats. That has led to the district accumulating a number of vacant and obsolete school buildings. The Philadelphia Archdiocese is facing similar decreases in enrollment throughout its system as well.
Corbett’s stance on the matter only further infuriates parents like Jennings.
“During his election campaign, Governor Corbett promised that every child, regardless of their zip code or economic status, should have access to the best education possible,” Jennings said. “Chester Upland needs rescuing right now, and if the governor can’t find money to deal with this emergency, he’s failing voters and our state’s children.”
Jennings also said that this action will be “catastrophic” for seniors who either didn’t get their diplomas before winter break or those who won’t be able to transfer to a neighboring school district, a move that Jennings says is almost impossible.
“Actually, if worse came to worse and the school district shuts down, I personally would just home school,” she said. “Going into another school district would be hard, because they are allowed to turn our children away because we don’t live there. For the seniors to lose all their hard work, it would be especially devastating.
“The governor is basically telling our children that they weren’t worth doing every single, solitary thing that has to be done to make sure our students receive a proper education.”
For the state’s part, Eller said he is sympathetic to the plight of parents and students, and understands their dismay.
“The department recognizes the concerns of parents and the community at large and the disruption that this may potentially cause them,” Eller said. “That’s why the district continues to work on contingency programs, and there are ongoing talks to come up with ways to best implement them.”
HARRISBURG — A year that has been hard on Pennsylvania's public school budgets, particularly in the state's poorest districts, could be followed by an even tougher year.
The administration of Gov. Tom Corbett is preparing a budget proposal Tuesday that will address a projected deficit, the state government's fourth in a row. And many lawmakers believe the Republican will press for more cuts to public school funding just a year after he and the GOP-controlled Legislature leveled the biggest school aid reduction in at least several decades to help close a multibillion-dollar shortfall.
Corbett's budget unveiling comes at a time when school districts' costs for pensions, salaries and health care are rising, and computer and textbook purchases and routine maintenance are being put off. Language, tutoring, arts and athletics programs are shrinking in many districts, while class sizes are growing.
It also comes as lawmakers warn Corbett that he needs to come up with a plan to deal with a growing number of school districts that could run out of money to pay bills, as impoverished Chester Upland, near Philadelphia, already did.
For now, many district officials are giving a gloomy outlook. Local tax revenues are stagnant, deficits are looming, reserves are shrinking and property tax increases are on the drawing board for next year's budgets — along with the possibility of more painful cutbacks.
"I just hope (Corbett and state lawmakers) look, at a minimum, to level funding and we'll see if we can get by on that for another year," said Bronson Stone, the superintendent of the approximately 900-student Susquehanna Community School District in northeastern Pennsylvania. "But any further reduction after the massive hit last year, it's uncalled for and we need a set of priorities in this state."
The possibility of more school funding cuts has suburban Pittsburgh parent and Woodland Hills school board member Tara Reis "panic-stricken. I'm beyond afraid. And I'm an optimistic person."
Last year, Corbett and the Legislature approved cuts in aid that, as a percentage, had the effect of drawing the most money away from the poorest districts because they tend to rely more heavily on state aid.
Administration officials have declined to answer questions about Corbett's upcoming budget proposal, although revenues are lagging projections this year and they say the rising costs for pensions, debt and health care will contribute to an estimated deficit of well over $500 million next year.
In testimony last week in front of the Senate Education Committee, Education Secretary Ron Tomalis criticized the state's past school funding practice for not diverting state dollars from school districts with shrinking enrollments to those that are growing.
Tomalis also has said that the growth of teachers' ranks in recent years is out of step with dropping public school enrollments statewide, and has suggested that school employees' collective raises of more than $1 billion since the recession began is excessive.
School funding is especially on lawmakers' minds after a federal judge had to order Corbett to send an advance to the Chester Upland district after teachers pledged to work unpaid and district officials warned that they would have to shut schools down.
All told this year, Corbett cut about $860 million, or more than 10 percent, from aid that supports public school instruction and operations.
According to an Associated Press analysis of state data on school budgets, attendance and income, school districts cut their budgets by a total of 3 percent in this school year, or $414 per student, compared with last year. That's a total of about $732 million.
Those reductions were deepest in poorer districts.
School districts that are in the bottom half of districts in average personal income reduced per-student spending by more than three times as much as the districts in the top half of personal income, according to AP's analysis.
That translates to a reduction of $696 per student, or 5 percent, to $13,271 in the poorest half of school districts, versus a reduction of $192 per student, or 1 percent, in the wealthier half of districts to $14,569.
The spread was more extreme on the farthest edges of the income spectrum.
In the 20 poorest districts, where average income is $24,860, per student spending dropped by 7 percent, or $1,000, to $13,077. In the 20 wealthiest districts, where average income is $108,985, per student spending actually rose almost 1 percent, or $149, to $17,723.
In Windber Area School District in southwestern Pennsylvania's coal country, average income is below $32,000 and the district is facing a $1.6 million deficit, or about 10 percent, next year after slashing its budget by 15 percent, one of the highest percentage reductions in the state this year.
Its elementary, middle and high schools regularly receive the state's Keystone Achievement Awards for demonstrating sustained academic achievement, but Superintendent Rick Huffman wondered how Windber is supposed to keep pace with wealthier districts.
"If the playing field was unequal before, we're not even sure there's a playing field left," Huffman said.
Susquehanna Community School District trimmed its full-day kindergarten program down to part-day as part of a 7 percent budget reduction this year. Average income is about $27,000 in the district, where schools also are regular Keystone Achievement Award recipients. Already, Stone, the superintendent, is projecting a minimum $800,000 shortfall, or 6 percent, next year that it may fill with its cash reserves.
In York, one of the state's poorest districts with average income of $25,000, teachers found themselves with larger classes and additional responsibilities or shuffled around to new positions to cover for laid-off colleagues after a 10 percent budget cut.
In Woodland Hills, which cut its budget by 9 percent, Tara Reis' two children, 5th- and 6th-graders, each have several more children in their classroom this year. One class rose from 21 to 25, and the other rose by 24 to at least 28 to 30, Reis said.
At the Cook-Wissahickon Elementary School in Philadelphia, parents are supplying pens, pencils and paper for a school where a 35 percent budget cut claimed a slew of jobs, student-advancement programs and big plans from an active parent community, said Rebecca Poyourow, a parent of two there.
Now, she said, kindergarten teachers are exhausted at the end of the day, the principal is covering for the laid-off bus monitor and no one has time to work on educational-improvement strategies while they're just trying to keep things running.
"It has been such a well-functioning school with such high teacher and student satisfaction that it's so disheartening and depressing this year to see it unraveling while we're fighting so hard to fix it," Poyourow said.
Harrisburg, cited by lawmakers as one of the state's most financially troubled school districts, is facing its third straight deficit after two years of budget cuts that included closing several school buildings and eliminating 500 jobs, or almost one-third of the remaining 1,100-strong staff, business manager Jeff Bader said.
For now, the increase in class sizes has been somewhat muted because of a shrinking enrollment, he said. Officials in the district, where average income is about $29,000 and property tax rates are among the highest in the state, can foresee $1.5 million in higher costs, or about 6 percent, next year from rising pension and debt obligations.
Employee salaries and health care insurance costs also could rise, depending on the outcome of negotiations with the labor union, along with utility and fuel costs, Bader said. There are no easy answers for how to pay for it all.
"We've gone past cutting the programs that are nice but not essential," Bader said. "We've gone past cutting extra expenses that aren't necessary. We've gotten ourselves down to the level (where) there's no extras out there." -- (AP)
Governor Tom Corbett signed a House Bill designed to help financially distressed school districts and ensure education for the children who live in those communities. The bill is called the Financial Recovery Legislation for Schools.
The law establishes a set course of action that will help guide financially distressed school districts back onto solid economic ground. Under the law, the state will provide financial aid as well as management assistance.
“Any kind of school reform or school rescue has to be, first and foremost, about the students,” Corbett said. “This bill provides the framework for the state Department of Education to intercede and work with local officials to help reconstruct a failing district while making sure the students in that district still receive an education.
“This bill is also about saving the educations of students when the system has failed them. The state constitution guarantees every child an education, and we intend to see that obligation fulfilled. The total cost of implementing this bill is, at present, just under $6 million. The cost of not acting is to lose a generation of young people to a failed system.”
The Chester Upland School District is among districts across that state that currently meets the criteria to be declared distressed. The law will allow the secretary of education to declare districts meeting certain criteria as distressed and to appoint a chief recovery officer, who will be charged with developing a financial recovery plan. By implementing the plan, the districts are eligible for long-term, interest-free loans.
Solicitor Leo Hackett said once Secretary of Education Ronald Tomalis officially declares Chester Upland distressed, a series of events will play out.
“After the declaration is made and a chief recovery officer is appointed, the school board will have 14 days to determine whether it will work with the officer to develop the financial recovery plan,” he said. “Once an officer is appointed at Chester Upland, the officer will have 30 days to develop the recovery plan.
Presumably, there’s some discussion with the board and the district on what’s in that recovery plan.
“At the end of the 30-day period, he submits it to the board. If the plan is accepted, Tomalis must sign off on it before it is implemented. If the board declines to work with the officer, Tomalis can petition the courts to place Chester Upland under receivership to implement a plan.”
Chester Upland recently reached a tentative agreement to settle a pair of lawsuits it filed against the Pennsylvania Department of Education. The settlement called for the state to relieve Chester Upland of millions of dollars it owes and provide an additional $9.7 million in funding for the 2012–2013 school year. A hearing for final approval is scheduled for Aug. 15.
The fight continues for the education of students in the Chester Upland School District as State Rep. Thaddeus Kirkland held a public meeting to discuss the ongoing financial crisis in the district last Friday at the Chester Fine Arts Center.
About 150 concerned residents attended the meeting.
The meeting started with a brief history of the school’s district governance over the past few decades, which included the state taking over the district with an empowerment board overseeing the district. An elected board was later set into place for the district.
A federal judge ordered the state to advance $3.2 million to the Chester Upland School District on Jan.16 to enable the district to meet its immediate bills until its next court date, Feb. 23.
The school board has sued the state to provide the funding needed to keep the district open through June.
“If the school district is forced to dissolve, and we are talking about 3,600 kids, guess what; the Constitution states that our children have a right to a good, quality education,” Kirkland said. “So if it were today, the other school districts would have to accept and absorb our children. You can’t put our kids out on the street.
“You can’t just kick them out and say no more education — go walk the streets. They don’t want your kids in their district,” he added. “And quite frankly, I don’t want them there either. I don’t want our children somewhere where they are not wanted.”
Kirkland told the crowd he is currently working on a plan with Chester Mayor John Linder and others to reduce the district’s projected deficit of $20 million.
He also said the district’s actual debt totals $75 million, which he believes occurred when the state took the district over.
He also told the crowd that he was against another state takeover. Kirkland is requesting an audit of the district by the office of the state auditor general to learn what exactly happened to the district’s money and where the money went.
In addition to addressing the crowd, Kirkland also had the support of State Rep. Ronald G. Waters of Philadelphia, and chairman of the legislative black caucus at the meeting.
Waters encouraged those at the meeting to continue to fight for their district.
“I am here because I feel your pain,” he said. “There are a lot of people (in Harrisburg) who really don’t care about what’s going on in the Chester Upland School District or the Philadelphia, Harrisburg, or Pittsburgh school district. But what you have to show them is that you care about what’s going on.
“There is strength in numbers and sometimes you have to rattle the cages,” Waters said. “It has to be a united effort. This situation is an embarrassment to this state. With all the revenue this state can raise if they wanted to, they refuse to and let this school district go down.”
With the district’s long-term outlook still uncertain, local legislators and residents will continue to take action by scheduling community meetings and planning a trip to Harrisburg.
On Friday, Jan. 27, State Sen. Domini Pileggi has planned an open forum from 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. at the Chester Upland School District administration building.
State Rep. William Adolph of Springfield, will be hosting a meeting that same day at 10 a.m. at Widener University. Chester residents are also planning a bus trip to Harrisburg on Jan. 30.
City Team Ministries will be distributing more than 2,000 backpacks filled with school supplies for kids in the city of Chester. The backpack giveaway will be held Saturday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the basketball courts on Seventh and Penn streets in Chester. The day will include food, games, and music.
“We have been doing this giveaway for 19 years now,” said Anna Donahoe, City Team family services coordinator. “It originally started because we saw a need in this community. We decided to do a backpack giveaway because it would provide kids with the essentials that they would need for school and lessen the burden for some parents. “Since we started this event, the community has shown us love through their support and volunteering. The kids have been gracious and excited. We looking forward to putting a smile on all these kids’ faces.”
The backpacks will be distributed to registered families. Parent’s ID and proof of age are required for each child. Families who are not registered will still be able to receive a backpack at the City Team location in Chester. The backpacks will be given to students from pre-kindergarten to the 12th grade. Donations for the event came from local businesses, churches, and residents. About 100 volunteers will be helping at the event.
“Last year’s event was a little bit different due to Hurricane Irene, but this year we are extremely excited.” Donahoe said. “In addition to the backpack giveaway, we will also be having games for the kids to participate in. Some of the activities will include basketball and soccer. We just want the kids and their families to have a good time before the school year begins.”
Last month, a settlement was reached in the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia’s class action lawsuit against the Pennsylvania Department of Education and state officials on the issue of whether the Chester-Upland School District (CUSD) will be able to stay open and provide services for students with disabilities in accordance with federal law in the 2012-2013 school year.
According to the settlement agreement, the Commonwealth will provide the CUSD with $20.5 million to eliminate existing debt and an additional $9.7 million for the 2012-2013 school year.
“They have a hard enough time during the school year,” Donahoe said. “In addition to the problems going on in the district, they also have challenges that they face every day in their life. We don’t want them going to school with a beat up backpack or without the supplies that they need. They need to know that there are people who genuinely care about them. They are our future and we need to help them prepare for it. We want to see them succeed.”