Annette John-Hall: Corbett's blame game with Chester Upland School District is hurting the students

Posted: January 20, 2012

This was the week that teachers in the bankrupt Chester Upland School District were supposed to go without their paychecks.

But thanks to some eleventh-hour legal strong-arming, they'll be getting paid.

That's good news, even though the teachers - you know, those lazy, pension-grubbing, benefit-greedy fat cats - were determined to teach without a paycheck for as long as it took.

"They'll have to lock the doors for me not to show up," said Robert Downs, who teaches second and third grades at Columbus Elementary School. "Our children need us."

But until a federal judge ordered the state to advance the bankrupt school district $3.2 million on Tuesday - only a portion of the $18.7 million the district asked for - nothing was guaranteed.

Except for one thing. That the Corbett administration will continue to sacrifice the futures of Chester's schoolchildren.

It's beyond wrong, the blame game the governor is playing with the beleaguered school district. Corbett justifies withholding funds by saying that Chester Upland shouldn't get any more money because it couldn't manage the money it had been given.

Forget for a moment that the tax-strapped district depends on the state for 80 percent of its funding. This community had endured 12 superintendents in 13 years and at least five boards controlled by the state - that's right, the state.

Seems like there's enough blame to go around. Doesn't matter whether the culprits were Democrats or Republicans, the bulk of the blame should land squarely in the Department of Education's lap.

After all, it's only been a year that the district has operated under a local school board.

The state, declaring them "financially distressed," took over the schools from 1993 to 2010. The district answered to a board of control (later an empowerment board) appointed by the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

Which left the local school board virtually powerless. Heck, it couldn't even spend more than $5,000 without running it past the state folks.

The only thing it had power to do was raise taxes, but there is little to tax. Not only that, viable properties, like Harrah's Casino and Widener University, are tax-exempt.

As if his plans for Chester's kids are a foregone conclusion.

Made a scapegoat

Acting deputy superintendent Thom Persing has been on the job only two months, but it's long enough for him to recognize that the state is using the district as a scapegoat.

The budget crisis "wasn't a secret," Persing said. "Everybody knew what was going on. . . . Last year's budget was already constructed. The [local] school board inherited it."

Talk about cleaning up other people's messes.

Chester Upland went into the school year behind on last year's bills: $3 million in unpaid teachers' salaries, $8 million in state advances, $4 million in various accounts payable, and $2 million in unemployment compensation for laid-off teachers, to name a few.

Along with the budget cuts already imposed by the state, that leaves it close to $21 million in the hole.

So who is to blame?

"I'm not blaming anybody," Persing said. "I can't undo the past. The only thing we can do now is make it better for the kids, for now and in the future."

The district has sued to keep the schools open for the rest of the year, asking the state to use part of the $36 million it diverted to finance district charter schools - a favorite of the voucher-happy governor.

U.S. District Judge Michael Baylson told the state it couldn't withhold any more money from Chester without his approval. Thank God for him. Otherwise, Corbett wouldn't have budged - and where would that leave the students of Chester?

With nowhere to go in the middle of the school year. Such cruel and unusual punishment toward children who have done nothing wrong except to expect a decent public education.

Isn't that what we tell our kids all the time? You need your education.

And that's nonnegotiable.


 

Contact Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986, Ajohnhall@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @Annettejh

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