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.”