Many to blame in Chester school crisis; time to act

Linda Cook, a top teachers' union official, helps hang a banner urging state help for the Chester Upland schools.
Linda Cook, a top teachers' union official, helps hang a banner urging state help for the Chester Upland schools. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 19, 2012

The crisis facing the Chester Upland School District is what happens when politicians are more interested in getting their way than in solving a problem. The fault lies as much in Harrisburg as in Chester.

Privatization. Charters. State control. Increased funding. Austerity. None of these glib solutions to the problems of urban schools has provided Chester Upland's 7,000 students with what is available in most Pennsylvania school districts - an education that prepares students for college or the job market.

Instead, the district's science classes have up to 45 students jammed in front of one teacher. There are no advance placement courses. No books to take home. Not enough computers for students to use.

All art and music classes have been discontinued. Only one foreign language is offered. One psychologist serves the entire district. Only two out of eight of the district's schools are meeting Adequate Yearly Progress.

No one knows if the district's main charter school, the largest in the state, is doing any better. In fact, the state is investigating allegations of cheating on standardized tests by the school.

Even worse, the district is on the verge of insolvency and threatening to close, leaving parents frightened about how their children will be educated and angry that anyone would consider abandoning them. The children of Chester did not cause the problem.

There is more than enough blame to go around. For 16 of the last 18 years, the state has controlled the district's budget. Yet the state auditor general reported in January 2011 that he could not verify district records and noted that budgets had been exceeded almost every year. The deficits through the last state-approved budget, ended last June, totaled $20 million.

It is no wonder that the district, saddled with paying off debts from state-created deficits, cannot pay all its bills. The problem is made worse by the fact that Chester's $18 million cut in state and federal aid had to come exclusively from the funds for district students because the charter's reimbursement is based on the previous year's per-student rate.

While the district's 3,700 students lost 115 teachers, there were no cuts for the 3,000 charter students. Further, the Chester Community Charter sucks money from the district by designating 25 percent of its students as special education - billing the district $23,000 for each - while the state caps its reimbursement for special education to the district at 16 percent of the student body.

Still, the district needs to explain how it can receive about $15,000 per student and provide so little to its students. Perhaps that is not enough for all the necessary support services, but it should be enough for paper, computers, and sufficient teachers for a reasonable class size. Where the money is going is one of the essential mysteries to outsiders.

Assuring families that the schools will stay open without further debilitating cutbacks should be easy. The district and charter school came up with a plan to stay open with current appropriations, if the state does not collect this year the $8.7 million it advanced to the district last year and it allocates the same $4.5 million in empowerment grants that it gave Chester in previous years. The state has yet to say why this plan is not immediately doable.

The state and district could then negotiate how to pay off about $13 million in debt the district would face at the end of June - already less than the $20 million originally created under state oversight.

There will be no public confidence in the district, however, until there is complete transparency about its finances. Appoint a special prosecutor to investigate whether there were improper expenditures. Appoint a financial manager who reports weekly all encumbrances and expenditures - publicly. Post all payments on a website, with cumulative totals against the budget. Operate transparently. Since neither the state nor district administrators can be trusted, it is time to let the public see the books. Get parents and other stakeholders involved.

Longer-term solutions can then follow. However, what is needed first is a political commitment that education matters. Once that happens, politicians must recognize that the state's constitutional obligation to provide "a thorough and efficient system of public education" means providing Chester with sufficient managerial and financial resources to do the job.


 A. Jean Arnold is chair of the Chester NAACP Education Committee. J. Whyatt Mondesire is president of the NAACP State Conference. Michael Churchill is a lawyer with the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia. E-mail the writers at ajean.arnold@gmail.com, infosundaysun@yahoo.com, and mchurchill@pilcop.org.

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