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 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.”
The Chester Upland School District will live to see another day. Just how many days remains to be seen, but on Tuesday, Eastern District Court Judge Michael M. Baylson ordered the state to release $3.2 million to the beleaguered school district as a stop-gap measure, which will help pay staff and keep the doors open at least through February, when the district expects a ruling on its plea for the state to grant it a loan on future payment installments.
In a blow to Governor Tom Corbett’s decision to stop funding the school district, Judge Baylson also ordered the state to not withhold any future subsidies without his approval.
So for now, Chester Upland School District remains open for business, and if the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia has any say, those doors will remain open indefinitely.
That is because the law center filed documentation to intervene in the district’s lawsuit against the state. Specifically, the center wants to make sure the focus remains on the students and doing what’s right by them.
“Not only did we intervene on behalf of the students on the federal lawsuit, we have also filed suit on the students’ behalf in commonwealth court to have access to both the state and federal laws,” said Michael Churchill, lead counsel at the law center and for this case. “Students represented in this lawsuit are able to pin their rights to an education that is fully consistent with state mandates.
“We hope the courts will be responsive to these petitions,” Churchill continued. “These are primary rights of students, and to close schools and deny them opportunities to an education that meets state standards are clearly irresponsible.”
Churchill has a reason for his optimism: he also filed these documents with Judge Baylson, who, given his recent decisions, seems sympathetic to the plight of the children in the Chester Upland School District. Churchill and his team hope that Baylson will force the sides to agree to some sort of compromise if the two parties can’t reach an agreement on their own.
“It’s the state’s responsibility; it’s in the state constitution to provide a thorough, efficient system of public education, which means education for everyone,” Churchill said. “The state can’t just write [students in the Chester Upland School District] off.”
While this conflict rages between the school district and the state, Churchill contends that both parties share equal blame and in the end, this impasse will only hurt the students.
“It is frankly outrageous that the state or school district never had a plan for what has happened,” Churchill said, noting that Judge Baylson’s ruling was extremely helpful for the law center’s motions. “Neither party is blameless. The state has control of the finances; in the last year and a half, the district was unable to control its finances, partly inherited from the state. It’s time to stop playing these games.”