The Chester Upland School District has reached a tentative agreement to settle a pair of lawsuits it filed against the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE).
The settlement calls for the state to relieve Chester Upland of millions of dollars it owes and provide an additional $9.7 million in funding for the 2012–13 school year. U.S. District Judge Michael Baylson revealed the agreement in a federal court order. A hearing for preliminary approval of the settlement is slated for July 27. A hearing for final approval is scheduled for Aug. 15.
“This settlement is some of the best news the district has received in a long time,” said Michael Churchill, attorney at Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, who represents a group of Chester Upland parents and students in the lawsuit. “The state will provide relief to Chester Upland from its current financial liabilities to vendors, staff and to the charter schools, and it will provide a boost in funding for the new financial fiscal year of $9.7 million, which was in the state budget that was recently passed.
“Overall, the district will still be a very under-funded district. The district had to cut many of its programs last year - including art, music, foreign language, and some of its other electives. It’s not clear yet which programs will be able to be restored with these funds, but this settlement will lead Chester Upland in the right direction. I believe that things will start to look up for district and its students.”
Chester Upland filed a federal lawsuit against the state after it ran out of funding in January. That suit also spawned a similar lawsuit in the state court system. Both suits are part of the settlement agreement, the district confirmed.
In suing the state, the district sought to prevent its schools from closing and argued the state was not providing the funding necessary for Chester Upland to meet its lawful obligation to special education students.
Baylson first ordered PDE to provide Chester Upland with $3.2 million to keep schools open for several weeks. Eventually, the sides reached an agreement for PDE to cover the critical vendor payments needed to keep schools operating. The settlement agreement appears to have PDE picking up the remainder of that tab, which totals close to $30 million.
“This budget will make up for the cuts that were made in the prior year,” Churchill said. “The lack of funding was what prevented the school district from being able to provide mandated special education services to students. It was also the reason behind bringing the case.
“Through this agreement, the district will remain open and provide sufficient funds for its students. The parties still have to work out how the money will be used appropriately for special education students, so that the agreement is carried out. They have until July 16 to draft the settlement papers and submit them to the court.”
Chester Upland has a history of mismanagement of funds. In 2000, Chester Upland was declared financially distressed by the PDE, resulting in a state takeover. In 2007, PDE issued a declaration stating that the Special Board of Control of the Chester Upland School District had operated the district well enough to reestablish a good financial structure.
As a result of this declaration, the Special Board of Control was replaced by a new three-member Empowerment Board of Control to address the district’s poor educational performance while managing its fiscal condition. In 2010, the Education Empowerment Act expired and the elected board assumed leadership of the district.
“I don’t think the state needs to take over the district again,” Churchill said. “When the state took Chester Upland over, they did not bring much improvement to the district. Having a state takeover is not an automatic solution to this problem. I don’t think another state takeover is necessary, but this settlement is proof that the district is heading in the right direction.
“Both students and parents should continue to be knowledgeable about everything going on with the school district. Parents should continue to attend board meeting and students should continue to let their parents know what’s taking place in their schools. We want to continue to ensure everyone that we are doing everything we can to ensure a bright future for the district, students, and parents.”
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.”
The Chester Upland School District will live to see another day. Just how many days remains to be seen, but on Tuesday, Eastern District Court Judge Michael M. Baylson ordered the state to release $3.2 million to the beleaguered school district as a stop-gap measure, which will help pay staff and keep the doors open at least through February, when the district expects a ruling on its plea for the state to grant it a loan on future payment installments.
In a blow to Governor Tom Corbett’s decision to stop funding the school district, Judge Baylson also ordered the state to not withhold any future subsidies without his approval.
So for now, Chester Upland School District remains open for business, and if the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia has any say, those doors will remain open indefinitely.
That is because the law center filed documentation to intervene in the district’s lawsuit against the state. Specifically, the center wants to make sure the focus remains on the students and doing what’s right by them.
“Not only did we intervene on behalf of the students on the federal lawsuit, we have also filed suit on the students’ behalf in commonwealth court to have access to both the state and federal laws,” said Michael Churchill, lead counsel at the law center and for this case. “Students represented in this lawsuit are able to pin their rights to an education that is fully consistent with state mandates.
“We hope the courts will be responsive to these petitions,” Churchill continued. “These are primary rights of students, and to close schools and deny them opportunities to an education that meets state standards are clearly irresponsible.”
Churchill has a reason for his optimism: he also filed these documents with Judge Baylson, who, given his recent decisions, seems sympathetic to the plight of the children in the Chester Upland School District. Churchill and his team hope that Baylson will force the sides to agree to some sort of compromise if the two parties can’t reach an agreement on their own.
“It’s the state’s responsibility; it’s in the state constitution to provide a thorough, efficient system of public education, which means education for everyone,” Churchill said. “The state can’t just write [students in the Chester Upland School District] off.”
While this conflict rages between the school district and the state, Churchill contends that both parties share equal blame and in the end, this impasse will only hurt the students.
“It is frankly outrageous that the state or school district never had a plan for what has happened,” Churchill said, noting that Judge Baylson’s ruling was extremely helpful for the law center’s motions. “Neither party is blameless. The state has control of the finances; in the last year and a half, the district was unable to control its finances, partly inherited from the state. It’s time to stop playing these games.”