"What makes them think that we can't run our own district?" said School Board President Wanda Mann. "This is disappointing and discouraging news."
The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Jeffrey Piccola (R., Dauphin), was passed as part of a package being enacted along with the state budget. It takes effect immediately, so Chester Upland could be under state supervision again within weeks.
Piccola praised the bill's passage in a statement Friday, saying it provides "tools to structurally reform these failing districts." Three other districts around the state - Harrisburg, York City, and Duquesne - are also immediately affected.
The bill gives a chief recovery officer to be appointed by the state education secretary broad powers to craft a financial plan that could covert schools to charter schools, hand them over to education management organizations, call for renegotiating the teachers' contract, close schools, and cancel contracts with vendors.
The plan may include interest-free loans from the state to a distressed district; the legislature is putting $10 million into a loan fund this year. If a school board refuses to endorse the proposed recovery plan, Pennsylvania's secretary of education must petition the local courts to appoint a receiver who would carry it out.
There is no official list of districts in, or headed toward, fiscal distress, but Piccola and others say at least a dozen and as many as 25 would be on such a roster, including large ones such as Allentown, Reading, Erie, and Altoona.
In July 2010, after state control of Chester Upland since 1994, the elected school board came back into power. Its members say state control left the district in debt. That, they say, along with 2011 state budget cuts and required payments to the charter schools that educate about half Chester Upland's children, is the immediate cause of the district's problems.
State officials counter that the district has been poorly managed and that the board did not make the tough decisions needed to balance the budget.
Charlie Warren, another Chester Upland school board member, said the legislation reflected a conservative agenda that promotes charter schools rather than an attempt to solve the district's problems. "This is an end run to charterize schools," he said Friday. "State takeovers in Chester Upland have always failed. We're in worse shape when they leave. They do not have a clue as to what we need."
Contact Dan Hardy at 601-313-8134 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @DanInq.