State denies more aid to Chester Upland schools

Posted: December 23, 2011

Delaware County's Chester Upland School District, deep in debt and about to run out of money, cannot expect any immediate help from the state, Pennsylvania's education secretary said in a letter to the school board Thursday.

The district has shown a "disregard for its budgetary and fiscal responsibilities," Ron Tomalis wrote, and as a result, its "continued operation and the education of its students remain in jeopardy."

Tomalis was responding to a request from the board for help, sent to Gov. Corbett last week.

He wrote that the board bears a large share of responsibility for a $27 million deficit - about a third of its current budget.

The school board, which took over the reins from a state-appointed oversight board in 2010, "failed to adjust to certain economic realities," he said. Among them:

The district deferred millions in obligations it incurred last school year, then used this year's funds to pay them off.

Chester Upland rehired dozens of previously furloughed staff during the school year after large-scale layoffs over the summer, at a cost of $6.45 million that it did not have.

The district did not budget funds to cover unpaid invoices from 2010-11, unemployment compensation for its laid-off employees, special education expenses, and increased charter-school payments.

Chester Upland has the highest percentage of children in charter schools in Pennsylvania, with 3,658 students in its regular schools and 3,025 or so at the Chester Community Charter School, the state's largest charter, and the much smaller Widener Partnership Charter.

It has one of the highest student poverty rates in Pennsylvania and is dependent on the state for about 67 percent of its funding. It has had financial problems since the 1990s and was under state control from 1994 to 2010.

School board members say increased charter costs and the loss of about $24 million in state funding over the last two school years played the main role in the district's financial woes.

Saying the district will run out of money in January, they asked Corbett for the advance of $18.7 million in state subsidies to keep it afloat.

Tomalis responded that the district had received more than $31 million in state funds since 2003 that were in excess of the amounts required by state law. Of that amount, about $9.5 million came to the district between June 2010 and March 2011, he said.

The board, not the state, Tomalis said, is responsible "to provide quality educational opportunities for resident children."

School Board President Wanda Mann, who heads a five-member Republican majority on the board, said in a written response Thursday that Tomalis "does not even begin to identify a solution to this devastating financial situation."

She added: "I will work tirelessly to correct this situation on behalf of our students, their families, and all of those who elected me to serve but I cannot and will not accept responsibility for it."

Charlie Warren, a Democrat who was elected to the board in November, said "I'm not surprised" by Tomalis' response. "We have to fight to save this district, despite what they are trying to do to us."

Warren said he believes "the state has an obligation to make sure our children are educated."


Contact staff writer Dan Hardy

at 215-854-2612, dhardy@phillynews.com, or @DanInq on Twitter.

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