Some moving out of troubled Chester Upland district

Posted: January 09, 2012

With Delaware County's beleaguered Chester Upland School District nearing insolvency, some parents are moving out of the city or placing their children in other schools.

Ieasa Nichols Harmon, the mother of three children and until last month a school board member, moved to Wilmington two weeks ago, wary of what might happen after Wednesday. When the district's 508 employees collect their paychecks, there will be only $100,000 left in the bank, with no immediate prospects for an infusion of cash.

Harmon said she had spotted five other district high school students in the hallways of her daughter's new school. In Chester Upland, she said, "Education is being dismantled day by day, so there is no other option for our children."

Others are following suit. Nicola Tollett Jefferson, who heads the Swarthmore nonprofit the Achievement Project (TAP), which offers tutoring and enrichment to 20 Chester High School students, said five of them have departed since last fall for other districts or private schools. She is meeting with parents this week, she said, to discuss enrolling their children in an online school.

"Parents and students are very, very upset and discouraged," Jefferson said. "The teachers are hanging in there, but the overall situation is so detrimental."

The district, hit by the triple whammy of massive defections to charters, big cuts in state aid, and a large accumulation of debt from last school year, is broke. State officials say it has failed to be fiscally responsible and should not expect any help.

On top of the payroll shortage, said acting Assistant Superintendent Thomas Persing, Chester Upland also owes "millions" to a long list of creditors, including medical-insurance companies, the state pension system, and out-of-district special-education providers. It is more than $20 million short of funds for the year, he said - about 20 percent of its $96 million budget.

Schools will remain open after Wednesday for the approximately 3,700 students who attend them, Persing said, because the 200 or so teachers in the district, plus other employees ranging from bus drivers to cafeteria aides, have pledged to work without pay for as long as they can. Vendors have not yet shut off key services; there is, Persing said, a "spirit of cooperation from everybody in making sure our kids get educated. It's really heartwarming."

Still, Persing said, it's only a matter of time until some employees say, " 'I've got to feed my children; I've got to get another job.' Eventually, we will hit a critical mass and have to say, 'Thank you for staying with us, but unfortunately we can't go on.' "

Persing said that he could not predict when that would happen, but that he guessed it would not be very long.

Mori Hitchcock, a senior at the Science and Discovery High School, said: "It's been rough - we don't know where we are going to be in a month, or a week. . . . I'm applying to colleges, but I don't know if I will have teachers or a guidance counselor. . . . I'm just going along day to day."

Upland resident Dennis Martinelli, the grandfather of a district sixth grader, said he still believed help would come from Harrisburg. "The state is not going to just put them out in the street," he said.

Meanwhile, he said, "I will wait till the end, and hope it doesn't come to that. . . . I'm not going to pull out on them; I'm part of this ship, and I will stay with it until this ship goes down."


Contact staff writer Dan Hardy at 215-854-2612, dhardy@phillynews.com, or @DanInq on Twitter.

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