The ice may be thawing between the Chester Upland School District and Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett, so much so that a permanent solution to the district’s long-running fiscal problems now seems possible.
Last, week, the Chester school district received a last-minute reprieve when Eastern District Court Judge Michael Baylson ordered the state to release to the school district $3.2 million in emergency funds, and further ruled that the state cannot withhold future payments to the district without his permission. Baylson also accepted the Public Interest Law Center’s motion to intervene on the affected students’ behalf in the case between the school district and the state.
The funding and budgeting dispute led to the district briefly running out of money, which in turned caused many teachers to work pro bono while seriously jeopardizing this year’s senior class graduation. Those fears are now somewhat allayed for the time being.
“We are extremely concerned that … the Commonwealth and the school district were not complying with the requirements of state law to ensure the continued education for children in Chester,” said Sonja Kerr, the law center’s Director of Disability Rights. “Petitioners asked the court to enforce the minimum rights that state law and the Pennsylvania Constitution guarantees.”
The Pennsylvania State Education Association, a union that counts Chester Upland teachers, support staff and non-administrative personnel among its members, believes the problems facing Chester’s public schools are many, but surmountable.
“No one disputes Governor Corbett cut millions from the budgets of schools, and that the largest charter school in the state is located in Chester,” said PSEA spokesman Rob Broderick. “The Chester Upland School District has to pay that charter school for every students that leaves [a public school in Chester] to attend a charter school.”
Broderick contends that this education payment system is broken, and it, coupled with public education being funded by an evaporating tax base, will only continue a cycle of insolvency and neglect.
“When cities like Philadelphia and Chester lose its industrial base, which has happened to both cities over the past 50 years, when those rates leave and are not replaced by new rates, the residents left are buried under new tax burdens,” Broderick explained. “The best long-term solution is for the state to come up with a plan to reduce the reliance on housing tax.”
While sympathetic to the plight of Chester Upland students and their parents, both Governor Tom Corbett and Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi — a Republican whose district includes Chester — had previously opposed any further payments to what they considered a fiscally negligent school district.
“As we develop a comprehensive solution to address the dire financial situation in the Chester Upland School District, our focus is first and foremost on the children attending school in the district. We understand the stress this situation is putting on them and their families, and we want to assure them that they will be able to finish the school year at Chester Upland,” Corbett and Pileggi previously said in a joint statement released by Corbett’s office. “Is it also clear, however, that significant changes to the district’s operations will be necessary to address Chester Upland’s financial condition. The present structure is simply unsustainable.”
But stances have softened and an open-minded approach seems to have struck the participants sometime over the weekend.
On Monday, Pileggi, who was mayor of Chester before running for the state legislature, attended a meeting with state lawmakers in Delaware County to try to find a plausible way out of the Chester morass; on Friday, he will convene a special open house for concerned students, parents and residents at the Chester Upland School District Administration Building — that meeting begins at 8:30 a.m.
Corbett, after meeting in his capitol office Monday with members of the General Assembly, elaborated on the state’s evolving stance.
“We are all committed to the children of this school district, and their families, to see that these students get the education they deserve,” Corbett said. “It will be up to everyone to work together to find a workable, acceptable, long-term solution to this problem, a solution that will make sure this problem is not repeated in the future.”