Saturday, August 29, 2015
Lawmakers have failed Chester Upland School District.
And now it’s up to teachers and professional staff to save the day.
For two decades, the Pennsylvania legislature hasn’t fulfilled its duty to equitably fund the public school district. Neither has the federal government. Instead, they left the impoverished school just 20 miles west of Philadelphia to survive on the drip of local property taxes from residents who, themselves, don’t have two pennies to rub together.
Moreover, our lawmakers not only permitted but encouraged three privately run charter schools to come to Delaware County and suck away whatever funds they could from the district while shortchanging student services at their privatized facilities.
And even worse, our elected officials drew up legislation allowing these charters to gobble up more funding from the district than the public school is allowed to spend on its own students.
So the state put the school in receivership, taking away control from local tax payers so unelected bureaucrats could fix all the problems.
Surprise! That didn’t work, either!
And now state and local officials say there isn’t enough money left in the district’s piggy bank to make payroll by the time the school’s 3,300 students are scheduled to arrive on Wednesday.
In such situations, there’s only one thing to do: close the school. Bus the kids to neighboring districts and any charter or cyber schools willing to take them.
No more Chester Uplands. Another neighborhood school bites the dust.
But the district’s more than 300 employees refused to let that happen.
The dreaded teachers union held a meeting and decided to what? Hold a strike? Demand more pay?
No. The 200 members voted unanimously to work without pay as the school year begins – and the district’s secretaries, bus drivers, janitors and administrators joined them.
Sadly, this is the second time the union came to this decision. In 2012 the district was in similar straights but a federal judge forced the state to cough up a few bucks only a few days after the school year began.
To be fair, Gov. Wolf has tried to help the struggling district more than his predecessor. His administration supported a plan to eliminate the district’s $22 million spending deficit by reducing payments to charter and cyber schools so they actually reflect the cost of the services they provide.
The plan called for capping payments to cyber schools at $5,950 per student. After all, schools where students attend class on-line don’t have nearly the overhead of brick-and-mortar districts. Why pay them more than the actual cost?
The plan also would reduce reimbursements for special education students at brick-and-mortar charter schools from $40,000 to $16,000 per student. After all, if the public school only spends this much for these services, why permit charter schools to demand more than twice that amount – more than any other district in the state receives?
These proposals didn’t come out of thin air. Both changes were consistent with recommendations by two bipartisan school funding commissions.
However, County Judge Chad F. Kenney denied the measure because it would do nothing to pay back the district’s charter schools an additional $8 million it already owes.
So to sum up – teachers are willing to work pro bono for the community’s children. They’re willing to put their own lives and families at risk to ensure their neighborhood school has more time to find a solution to its financial woes.
And charter schools? They want their money! Pay up, bitch!
If nothing is done to fix the problem, Chester Uplands deficit is expected to reach $48 million by the end of the year. Wolf and other state officials are scrambling to come up with a new plan.
Meanwhile, the problem is spreading from the Chester Upland District across the entire Commonwealth. Public schools are tightening their belts because the legislature is more than 50 days late passing a state budget. The major sticking point? School funding!
Republicans refuse to heal long-standing education cuts from the previous GOP administration while Democrats support an increase.
As lawmakers bicker, schools across the state are forced to dip into their reserves to keep their doors open. Public schools were required by law to complete their spending plans months ago making educated guesses how much they’d get from the state. Without that money coming in, they’re surviving on their rainy day funds – and as usual storm clouds are pouring on our schools.
Districts serving poor communities often don’t have much left over to continue running while Harrisburg plays political games. If something isn’t done soon, Chester Upland could be the first in a series of dominoes set to topple down.
The only thing keeping these districts afloat is the hard work and good will of their teachers and staff.