Legislators vow to save Chester schools

Posted: January 23, 2012

After meeting privately with Gov. Corbett and Education Secretary Ron Tomalis on Monday, a bipartisan group of legislators said that they would jointly find a way to keep Chester Upland's students in the classroom while exploring long-term solutions to the district's financial plight.

"This includes, if necessary, a supplemental legislative appropriation," State Sen. Daylin Leach, a Democrat, said in a statement after the meeting in Harrisburg.

But Tim Eller, the spokesman for the Education Department, said: "There was no commitment on funding."

Eller, who commented in an e-mail after reading Leach's statement, did not explain what he meant or return calls or e-mails asking for clarification.

A statement from Corbett's office did not address funding, saying: "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 spokeswoman Janet Kelley did not return calls or e-mails asking for comment on Leach's assertion.

On Friday, Corbett said after meeting with Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, a Republican who represents Chester: "We understand the stress that this situation is putting on [students] and their families, and we want to assure them that they will be able to finish the school year at Chester Upland."

Pileggi, who attended Monday's meeting in Harrisburg, said he looked forward to working with "other members of the General Assembly, and officials in Chester Upland as a long-term plan is developed."

Eleven legislators - six Republicans and five Democrats who represent parts of Delaware County - met with Corbett and Tomalis.

The 6,625-student Chester Upland district is operating on life support. It was about to run out of money last week when U.S. District Judge Michael M. Baylson ordered the state to advance the district $3.2 million on its allocations, enough to keep the doors open for a few more weeks.

Chester Upland sued the governor, the legislature, and the state Education Department in federal court earlier this month, seeking enough money to make it through the year.

The district, hit hard by large cuts in state aid, money owed from previous years, and ever-expanding payments to charters that educate close to half of its children, needs about $20 million to pay salaries and keep current on its payments to vendors and the state.

It could cost an additional $20 million or so to repay money that the state has advanced to the district, pay for Chester Upland students in charter schools, and erase debts already owed to businesses and other schools.

In an interview after the meeting, Leach praised Corbett, saying that the governor had stressed that any solutions to Chester Upland's problems "have to be bipartisan."

State. Rep. Thaddeus Kirkland, a Democrat who represents Chester, said he suggested to Corbett that the state auditor general be brought in to untangle how district finances have been handled in past years. Kirkland said Corbett supported the idea.

The question of who or what to blame for Chester Upland's woes has been a hot topic in recent weeks.

The Chester Upland school board and administration says that past state-appointed boards ran up millions in debt that triggered the meltdown. Corbett and Tomalis have said repeatedly that the current school board mishandled district finances and could have avoided the crisis.

"It will be up to everyone to work together to find a workable, acceptable long-term solution to this problem," Corbett said in his statement. "A solution that will make sure this problem is not repeated in the future."


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

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