Chester Upland pleads case in federal court

Posted: May 10, 2012

Chester Upland School District officials, in federal court Wednesday hoping to receive assurances that they will have enough money to educate 700 special-education students this fall, painted a grim picture of the district’s finances.

District officials told U.S. District Judge Michael Baylson that Chester Upland will end up the year owing charter schools, vendors, and special-education providers about $29 million that it cannot pay. The district, they said, will receive only $17 million to $18 million this school year from the state. The rest of the aid it would otherwise receive will go to charter schools and to pay back money the district owes the state and vendors.

The 3,350-student district almost went broke this year because of state budget cuts, payments to charter schools, and debt from previous years.

Next school year, with expected cuts in state funding, large projected payments to charter schools, and the obligation to make some bond payments, “we will be broke by September,” said Robert Bruchak, the district’s chief financial officer. If the district had to pay all it owes, he said, “we would not be able to operate the schools.”

Bruchak also told Baylson of a long list of threats from service and special-education providers to pull out of the district because they were not being paid.

Later, acting Assistant Superintendent Thomas Persing told Baylson that because the district cut about 28 percent of its staff last fall due to of a large budget shortfall, “we’re woefully inadequate. We don’t have the personnel or services other districts have.” Asked if he thought the district would be able to meet the requirements of federal special-education law next fall, Persing said: “No, I do not.”

The lawyer for the state, Amy Foerster, sought to establish that the district was meeting its special-education obligations this year. District officials said they were, for the most part.

Foerster portrayed Chester Upland’s financial operations as inadequate and chaotic, and tried to show that in recent months, every time the district asked for help in making an emergency payment, the state cooperated.

Baylson told the district’s lawyers that while he had heard much about the district’s funding crisis, he needed a more precise idea of “what dollars are available to educate children with disabilities. … Nothing I’ve heard today indicates that.”

The trial is expected to continue for several weeks.

Contact staff writer Dan Hardy at 610-313-8134, dhardy@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @DanInq.

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