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September 2, 2014, 8:01 am

Day of reckoning for Chester Upland education

The Chester Upland School District – one of the poorest in the state and already suffering from previous painful fiscal cuts – does not have enough money to pay its teachers, and its last hope is that the commonwealth will release emergency funds next week, which would allow the district to pay its staff and keep school doors open.

However, judging from previous statements from Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett’s office – including accusations of gross financial negligence by the school district’s board of directors – it seems unlikely the district will receive the money.

Last December, state Education Secretary Ron Tomalis denied an initial request for emergency funds, citing mismanagement examples such as the rehiring of furloughed staff, which cost the district roughly $6.45 million.

But in the end, it’s the students who will suffer, as these cuts call for the merging of two schools, laying off more than 100 staff and reducing the district budget by $18 million.

In fact, times are so hard at the school district that Danyel Jennings, a mother of two students currently enrolled there, started an online campaign at Change.org, petitioning for signatures to convince Corbett to release funds to the cash-strapped district.

“Our kids and their futures are in jeopardy,” Jennings said through a statement released by Change.org, the grassroots-based community website that takes up causes and issues for those wishing to begin an earnest and effective protest. “They deserve to have teachers who actually get paychecks for their work, and a school district that will be reliably open for the full school year.

“We have to get our schools on the right track, so kids like mine don’t have to suffer for the mistakes of the school district.” Jennings and other parents recently held a candlelight vigil outside the school district offices.

Tim Eller, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, sees the situation much differently, and believes the state did as much as possible for the struggling district.

“This mishandling of money is systemic and has been going on for years. In the spring of 2011, during the 2010-2011 school year, the district was facing near-bankruptcy, couldn’t meet payroll or pay bond holders…but the department did step in, did provide money and appropriations − $9.5 million above and beyond − to help get them through the problems they were facing,” Eller said. “During that same year, they asked for an advance on the next budget, and the department again stepped in and assisted, and also provided advice to help them.

“Nearly all the suggestions were totally ignored.”

Eller says the Chester Upland School District has a history of management miscues, including delaying $27 million in invoices and fees from the previous school year to the current one; mounting unpaid invoices and its refusal to pay in to unemployment compensation, special education programs or charter schools. Then there’s the rehiring of staff without the budget to pay them.

“The hiring back, without the ability to pay them, is very concerning,” Eller said, adding that this was just one of many examples of hubris on the part of the school district. “Every school district or business budgets for unemployment costs. That was $2.2 million that the district did not budget for. It’s a systemic fiscal management problem, an organizational problem that has progressed in that school district. That $18 million would only be a Band-Aid on the issues [the school district] claims. The problem is, we will be back in this same position in a couple of months.”

The Chester Upland School District joins a growing list of both public and parochial school districts facing similar cuts and funding decreases.

The Philadelphia School District announced that it will soon close as many as nine schools, and the Philadelphia Archdiocese also announced that it was shuttering as many as 48.

The Philadelphia School District has seen its student ranks decrease exponentially over the past decade, and now only has about 150,000 students enrolled throughout the system – not including the estimated 70,000 unoccupied seats. That has led to the district accumulating a number of vacant and obsolete school buildings. The Philadelphia Archdiocese is facing similar decreases in enrollment throughout its system as well.

Corbett’s stance on the matter only further infuriates parents like Jennings.

“During his election campaign, Governor Corbett promised that every child, regardless of their zip code or economic status, should have access to the best education possible,” Jennings said. “Chester Upland needs rescuing right now, and if the governor can’t find money to deal with this emergency, he’s failing voters and our state’s children.”

Jennings also said that this action will be “catastrophic” for seniors who either didn’t get their diplomas before winter break or those who won’t be able to transfer to a neighboring school district, a move that Jennings says is almost impossible.

“Actually, if worse came to worse and the school district shuts down, I personally would just home school,” she said. “Going into another school district would be hard, because they are allowed to turn our children away because we don’t live there. For the seniors to lose all their hard work, it would be especially devastating.

“The governor is basically telling our children that they weren’t worth doing every single, solitary thing that has to be done to make sure our students receive a proper education.”

For the state’s part, Eller said he is sympathetic to the plight of parents and students, and understands their dismay.

“The department recognizes the concerns of parents and the community at large and the disruption that this may potentially cause them,” Eller said. “That’s why the district continues to work on contingency programs, and there are ongoing talks to come up with ways to best implement them.”