The battle for Chester Upland

The ground troops are coming out in the Battle of Chester Upland.

John Hanger, secretary of planning and policy for Gov. Tom Wolf, along with Education Secretary Pedro Rivera, were in town yesterday. They paid a visit to officials at Chester Upland School District, the day after rolling out a new financial recovery plan to put the perpetually broke district on an even economic keel.

They want to do a thorough forensic audit of the district's books, as well as appointing a financial turnaround specialist to aid Francis Barnes, who is serving as the receiver of the troubled district, which has found itself under some form of state control since 1990.

But those are only the preliminaries. The real battle is a push in court by the state to drastically reduce reimbursements for charter schools students.

The Wolf plan - if implemented - would reduce the reimbursement for special education students from $40,000 to a little more than $16,000. State officials say that, coupled with some tweaks in cybercharter schools, the move would wipe out Chester Upland's #23 million deficit.

You read it right. They claim they could actually put Chester Upland in the black.

The flip side is that if this plan is not approved, they say there is a chance Chester Upland will not be able to open their doors in September. And if they do, there is no guarantee as to how long they would be able to continue to operate. If it goes unchecked, the district's deficit could grow to more than $40 million by the end of the year, this despite at least $75 million in additional funding give the district just since 2010.

After they toured the district, Hanger and Rivera stopped by our offices for a sit-down.

During that conversation, I learned something I did not know about the recovery plan.

The reduction in reimbursement would only pertain to special education students, of which there is a disproportionate large number in schools such as Chester Community Charter School, the largest brick-and-mortar in the state and a huge drain on Chester Upland finances. Until last year, more than half of students in the district were enrolled in Chester Community Charter.

According to Hanger, there are approximately 30 percent of students in charter schools in Chester Upland designated as special education. The change they are proposing would have no effect on reimbursements for the other 70 percent of students.

If you're getting the feeling that there is a lot of money tied up in the lucrative education of special education students, you are not alone.

Count the state budget secretary, the guy with his fingers on the purse strings, among that group.

"It's extraordinary," said Secretary Randy Albright of Chester Upland's special education reimbursements, which come to a cool $40,315 per child, much higher than most district in the state. "It's not something we can keep doing. It's literally bankrupting the district."

As you might imagine, the folks at the charter schools don't see it that way.

Last night they held a rally outside Chester Upland's administrative offices to protest the proposed plan. It coincided with a meeting of the Chester Upland School Board. The crowd filled the room and spilled outside.

Charter school officials are painting this as an attack on special education in the district.

"There were hundreds of unhappy people here tonight,," said Dr. David Clark Jr., CEO of Chester Community Charter School. "Charter schools in Chester have an enrollment that equals 55 percent of the student population in the city. We only receive 45 percent of the revenue, so do the math. Now you are talking about taking away 10 percent of the 45 percent."

He slammed the plan as being little more than "robbing Peter to pay Paul."

The two sides will collide again on Monday when state officials will make their case before Delaware County Judge Chad Kenny.

It should be a packed house.


According to Wolf, the district is required to pay the charter schools an inflated $40,315.42 for each special education student. This is more than twice the expenditures on its own students with special education needs and more than any other district in the commonwealth.

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