Perhaps lost in the din created by the Philadelphia School District’s financial meltdown is the equally horrendous fiscal catastrophe developing in the Chester Upland School District. Now, Michael Churchill, one of the lawyers for the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia — which had earlier filed a motion to intervene on behalf of district students in the federal CUSD-Commonwealth lawsuit — has been barred from attending the current phase of negotiations.
“Frankly, it’s a blatant attempt on the part of the state of Pennsylvania to cut Chester students and their parents out of the conversation,” Churchill said through a statement released by the law center. “This is a conversation, incidentally, that will have a profound effect on their futures.”
Churchill contends the state barred him from joining last Thursday’s negotiations, although CUSD officials allowed him to participate.
CUSD faced a $30 million-plus budget deficit for the current academic year, which led to layoffs and the threat that the school district couldn’t pay its teachers. That was only averted when the state released stopgap funding and CUSD officials identified nearly $30 million in previously-undiscovered funding streams.
CUSD and the state have yet to reach an agreement in the matter. Eastern District Court Judge Michael Baylson will hear more testimony during a court session scheduled for Tuesday, but has proven to be district-friendly with past decisions. In January, Baylson ruled that the state not only had to release a $3.2 million in emergency funds to the district, but required the state to obtain Baylson’s authorization before withholding future payments.
Also in January, PILCOP and the Education Law Center filed a joint motion on behalf of five Chester families to guarantee that the state treats CUSD in accordance with state law mandates. “While the state and the school district continue to debate this matter, the education of these students hangs in the balance,” said Education Law Center attorney Maura McInerney at the time of the filing. “This lawsuit seeks to ensure the rights of students are fully protected, despite the financial crisis.”
Baylson set Tuesday for the continuation of hearings and meetings to resolve the matter; according to the law center, the federal lawsuit has been postponed to give settlement talks enough time to mature.
Even minus Churchill and the Public Interest Law Center’s immediate involvement, CUSD parental and community groups have built up courtroom momentum heading into this latest round of hearings. Last month, the District Court certified the formation of a class action suit, which includes all parents of Chester schoolchildren who are not enrolled in the area’s charter schools. According to the law center, the class certification will allow the plaintiffs to seek systemic changes and an umbrella remedy that will protect all Chester students from inadequate funding.
“The court recognized that school funding isn’t primarily about the district’s budget, or the state’s budget; it’s about the students receiving a decent education,” said Sonja Kerr, an attorney with the law center also litigating on behalf of the CUSD. “We plan to keep fighting on behalf of all students until we’ve found a solution that truly protects students’ rights.”