Employees of the Chester Upland School District in Pennsylvania will show up for work on the first day of school next Wednesday, but they don’t expect to get paid.
The district, which has been struggling with financial and academic problems for decades, is on the edge of insolvency and cannot make payroll, state and local officials have said.
So on Thursday, about 200 members of the local teachers union voted unanimously to work without pay as the new school year opens. They were joined by secretaries, school bus drivers, janitors and administrators.
“The thought of it is very scary,” said John Shelton, 60, dean of students at the district’s only middle school and a 23-year employee. “It’s mind-boggling because there’s truly uncertainty. But we are all in agreement that we will come to work, so that the children can get an education.”
Shelton, who will be able to count on some income from his moonlighting job as a janitor, said he and his colleagues are willing to sacrifice because the students rely on the schools. “Some of our children, this is all they have as far as safety, their next nourishing meal, people who are concerned for them,” he said. “We are dedicated to these children.”
The district is about 20 miles west of Philadelphia and serves roughly 3,300 students, most them low-income.
A similar financial collapse occurred in the district in 2012, and the teachers also agreed to work without pay then. In the end, a federal judge ordered the state to pay the district, and lawmakers arranged a bailout, so that employees’ paychecks were just a couple of days late.
Chester Upland’s current fiscal crisis, however, is more serious, said Jeff Sheridan, a spokesman for Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D).
“They are in such dire financial shape right now,” he said, “unless something drastic happens . . . the school district is in danger of not existing.”
The governor is grateful to the teachers and other employees who are willing to work without pay, Sheridan said, adding, “It’s helpful and we commend them.”
But it’s not a solution, he said.
Chester Upland is facing a $22 million deficit that could grow to more than $46 million without major intervention, Sheridan said. He blamed several factors: local mismanagement, state cuts in education spending under the previous governor and a state law that requires traditional school districts to pay charter schools significant amounts for students who live within their boundaries but attend charters.
Public charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run, have been growing to the point that they educate nearly half the students who live in the Chester Upland district. Chester Upland pays local charter schools about $64 million in tuition payments — more than it receives in state school aid.
State law includes a funding formula that is especially generous toward special education students who attend charters; Chester Upland has to spend $40,000 per student per year for every special education student from its district who enrolls in a charter school. That’s twice the amount the district spend on its own students with special education needs and more than any other district in the state, Sheridan said.
Chester Community Charter School, a nonprofit institution managed by a for-profit company, is the largest charter in the district. It began in 1998 with 100 students and now enrolls 2,900 students, nearly as many as attend the traditional public school system.
This week, a Pennsylvania judge denied a request by Wolf and Chester Upland officials to reduce the district’s payments for special education to charters by about half, or nearly $21 million, in the 2015-16 school year.
Wolf based his request on a recommendation by a 2013 bipartisan legislative commission that the law should be changed to bring payments to charter schools more in line with what it costs traditional public schools to educate special needs students. The committee also recommended lower payments to online charter schools, which currently get the same per-pupil payments that brick and mortar schools receive. That change would save the Chester Upland district an additional $4 million a year, state officials said.
While the judge denied Wolf’s request to change the charter reimbursements, he did approve other aspects of a recovery plan for Chester Upland, including a forensic audit, the appointment of a financial turnaround specialist and restructuring a loan agreement with the state Department of Education.
Chester Upland’s financial problems date to 1994, when it was first classified by the state as being in “economic distress.” Between 2003 and 2009, it overspent by $25.1 million, and between 2009-10 and 2012, it overspent by an additional $19 million. Since 2010, it has received more than $74 million in state bailouts.
Wolf and other state officials are trying to come up with another plan to rescue the Chester Upland district, Sheridan said. “We’re reviewing our options,” he said. “At this point, we don’t have a final plan.”
Shelton said the district’s teachers and staff are counting on government officials to find a solution.
“I cannot believe the governor or legislature would let public education fail just for the sake of a dollar,” he said.