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October 8, 2015

Chester Upland, charters reach deal on payments

With Gov. Wolf's backing, the Chester Upland School District asked a judge Wednesday to approve a deal under which it would pay its three main charter schools a substantially reduced rate for special-education students.


The financially crippled district has argued that charter-school payments, which total $64 million annually, have left the school system destitute and struggling to pay its teachers.


At a hearing Wednesday in Media, school officials asked Delaware County President Judge Chad F. Kenney to sign off on the agreement to cut payments to charters by as much as $24 million, reducing tuition for special-education students from $40,000 to $27,028.


The district maintains the charters educate only students with the mildest forms of learning issues.

Wolf has advocated major changes in charter-school funding across the state, and the Chester Upland deal eventually could have an effect on other districts.


Chester Upland's three brick-and-mortar charters, Chester Community Charter School, Widener Partnership Charter School, and the Chester Charter School for the Arts, have agreed to the plan and to waive money that the district still owes them from the last school year.


The new plan also depends on a onetime $25 million infusion from the state to eliminate Chester Upland's negative balance.


Kenney said he wasn't optimistic the legislature would approve a bill from Rep. Thaddeus Kirkland (D., Delaware) authorizing the funds.


"The Chester Upland School District is poised to finally overcome years of financial distress," Francis V. Barnes, the district's state-appointed receiver, wrote in presenting the plan.


He said the steps he was seeking would eliminate the district's structural deficit and "once and for all fix the district's chronic fiscal issues."


Chester Upland started the year without enough money to make its first payroll. But the state came through with $4.3 million that school officials said would get them through the end of November, when they hoped a new state budget would be in place and school districts would receive their subsidies.


More than three months after the deadline, Wolf and the legislature remain deadlocked over his first proposed budget.


Charter advocates have been sharply critical of Wolf, saying he is trying to squelch school choice.

Attorneys for the Chester Upland charters took issue with the state's bailing out of teachers at the regular schools at a time when the district's failure to pay its bills means the charters can't meet their payrolls.


Joshua J. Voss, attorney for Chester Community Charter School, said the school had $960,000 in cash and couldn't pay its teachers after Oct. 16 or next month's rent.


But James Flandreau, attorney for the state Department of Education, said the state was tapped out.

"There is no deep well of money," he said.

610-313-8232 @Kathy_Boccella