Judge: Pa. must give Chester Upland schools $3.2M

Posted: January 17, 2012

A federal court judge Tuesday ordered that the state keep the bankrupt Chester Upland school district afloat for a few weeks more by advancing it $3.2 million.

That will be enough to pay teachers for now; the biweekly payroll for the district is about $1 million.

The district has only about $100,000 in the bank and owes other creditors; it would not have been able to meet its payroll Wednesday without additional money from the state. The Corbett Administration has refused requests to provide more funds for the district.

The infusion is an advance on state allocations to the district that it had been scheduled to get later in the year.

Eastern District Court Judge Michael Baylson also ordered the state Department of Education not to withhold further subsidies to the district without his approval. A hearing on the case is scheduled for Feb. 23.

The state has been sending Chester Upland district subsidies to charter schools that were educating district students. State officials said that was required by law; the district disagreed.

Corbett Tuesday defended his position that Chester Upland should not get money from the state.

"We can't continue to allow school districts to spend money they don't have, with the expectation that when they get through with that money the state will send them more," he said, while attending a groundbreaking of the new Endo Pharmaceuticals headquarters in Malvern.

"There are other schools that are just behind Chester Upland in their economic problems. What is the incentive for them to do it right if you keep rewarding Chester Upland?"

Department of Education spokesman Tim Eller said that the department did not agree with Baylson's order, but would not appeal it. The department "still has serious reservations with the way the district continues to manage its finances," he said. "Hopefully the district will change its ways."

Chester Upland students, parents and teachers expressed mixed emotions when asked about the court order - happy schools would stay open for now, but frustrated that there is still not enough for the district to finish the school year.

"I'm relieved, and I will be more relieved when I see my pay check," said Colleen Wellstein, a third grade teacher. "But we're not finished; there is more to be done. And my concern is not just for this year; its for next year, and into the future."

Said Sierra Baldwin, an 11th grader at Chester High: "I'm happy that it won't be closing and I won't have to go somewhere else and unhappy that it isn't more."

Diana Allen, the Parent Teacher Organization President at Columbus Elementary School and a longtime community activist, said that the $3.2 million is "a drop in the bucket."

"This is not fair to the community," she said. "The teachers have got to be paid; The governor has to stop playing games with human lives. Our public schools need to be put where they need to be, and they're nowhere near that now."

The district figures it will be $20 million in debt by the end of the school year. It blames the problem on payments it makes to charter schools, cuts in state funding and having to use this year's state subsidies to pay off last year's debts.

Last week, a bipartisan group of legislators requested a meeting with Gov. Corbett, asking him to declare the district financially distressed and send aid. No meeting has been set up, Sen. Daylin Leach said Tuesday. Eller said the district does not meet the state law's criteria for a distress declaration.


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

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