Pa. education secretary to hear concerns of Chester Upland officials, parents, students

Posted: February 03, 2012

At the urging of a federal judge, Pennsylvania Education Secretary Ron Tomalis will meet with Chester Upland School District stakeholders to determine how to keep the schools open until June.

Chester Upland, overwhelmed by mounting payments to charter schools, state budget cuts, and a remaining deficit from last year, ran out of money in January.

Last month, U.S. District Judge Michael Baylson ordered the state to advance the district $3.2 million, to keep it open.

At a hearing Wednesday before Baylson, attorneys representing the state, the school district, the Chester Community Charter School and parents and students agreed to present their views and financial information to Tomalis by Feb. 10. The education secretary will issue a report outlining a way forward by March 10. Tomalis said Thursday that no date has been set for the meeting.

School district attorney Leo Hackett told the judge that Chester Upland would run out of money by Feb. 15, and needs more state funding before Tomalis' report is issued. Amy Foerster, an attorney for the state, said that by her calculations, the district should have enough money to hold on for a few more weeks.

Baylson said he would not order the state to provide more money but assumed it would do so if the schools were in danger of closing.

"We will look to see what is necessary to keep educational opportunities available for the children in the district," Tomalis said Thursday.

He added that federal funding may be available to Chester Upland that would tide it over.

Before giving the district new state money, Tomalis said, "I believe we first must get an understanding of what can happen with the amount of money already in the pipeline. Based on that, we will determine what the next steps would be."

At Wednesday's hearing, Baylson said he was leaning toward the idea that the state courts are the best place to handle disputes regarding the district's funding. He did not, however, rule out a role for his court.

He would likely continue to be involved, he said, to make sure that the rights of learning disabled students in the district are not violated.

Some aspects of the dispute over state funding are already being aired in Commonwealth Court. In December, the Chester Community Charter School, which educates about 45 percent of the district's children, sued Chester Upland and the state, saying the district owed it millions of dollars.

The charter asked that the state and district be ordered to pay almost $7 million it is owed, and to ensure that it gets $15 million more that it said is due by June 30. This week, Commonwealth Court Judge James Gardner Colins denied the charter's request for a preliminary injunction to that effect, but the case remains open.

The School District got a boost Thursday when television's Ellen DeGeneres Show, while hosting Chester Upland teacher Sara Ferguson, announced that one of its sponsors, JCPenney, was donating $100,000 to Ferguson's school, Columbus Elementary.

Ferguson came to national attention after she told The Inquirer that district teachers would work without pay if needed to the keep schools open. Last week, Michelle Obama had Ferguson as a guest to watch President Obama deliver the State of the Union address.


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

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