Chester Upland School Dist. sues Pa. for lack of education funding, claims it's on brink of financial collapse

Jon Campisi Jan. 16, 2012, 8:01am

The Chester-Upland School District and a class of taxpaying parents have filed a federal lawsuit against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, its education department and various other state officials for failing to provide adequate state funding to the economically depressed school district through the end of the current school year.

The plaintiffs include the district’s board of school directors and parents of district pupils, including one parent of a special education student.

In addition to the state, the Pennsylvania Department of Education, state Education Secretary Ronald Tomalis, Gov. Tom Corbett and various other state legislative leaders are named as defendants in the civil action.

The class action suit claims the school district has seen an illegal reduction in state and federal funding for the 2011-12 school year.

It also claims an illegal reduction in funding for the district’s special education services, something that is required by federal law.

The plaintiffs seek funding to the tune of $20.7 million through the end of the school year.

The beleaguered Delaware County school district, which has an enrollment of about 3,700, and sits in one of the most economically depressed areas in the commonwealth, is primarily populated by minority students, the lawsuit states.

The district also has a significant number of students with learning disabilities.

The lawsuit claims that the district is on the brink of financial collapse. It is expected to run out of money by mid-week, and claims it won’t be able to meet its payroll obligations.

Teachers have been quoted in local media as saying they will stay on and work despite the prospect of not receiving a paycheck.

The lawsuit blames the state for inadequate funding, claiming that too much state funding has been diverted to charter schools.

From this month through June, the district claims, about $36.3 million in state subsidies reserved for the district are being sent to the charter schools, which have claimed many of the district’s students.

State education officials have stated that that money must go to the charters; the matter is out of their hands, they claim.

The state has faulted the school district for its own financial woes, putting the blame on the school system’s fiscal mess squarely on the shoulders of local leaders, since school funding in Pennsylvania is primarily a local issue.

On Jan. 12, Gov. Corbett took to the local radio airwaves to announce that a state takeover of the distressed school district was not out of the question.

In an interview on The Dom Giordano Show on WPHT-AM (1210), which was referenced in Friday’s Philadelphia Inquirer, Corbett made the claim that the state had come to the aid of Chester Upland for years, but that it refused to “continue to bail out one school district just because they don’t know how to control spending their money.”

Corbett didn’t entirely rule out a state takeover.

The district, meanwhile, has other thoughts about the matter. In its lawsuit, the district blames the state for the fiscal crisis, saying the fact that it was in state receivership beginning in 2006 shows that monetary problems could be blamed on state, and not local, officials.

“During this period of time when the School District was under the control of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania the School District’s cumulative debt increased substantially,” the lawsuit states.

During the period of state oversight from 2006 through last year, the suit claims, the commonwealth increased the district’s budget from $85 million to $113 million, and increased the number of employees from 590 to 735, despite the fact that enrollment was on the decline, some of the latter attributed to charter school enrollment.

The lawsuit claims that the reduction in state funding for the current school year “adversely impacted educational programming for minority and disabled students in the School District.”

The suit also claims that the district relies primarily upon state and federal funding due to the fact that the City of Chester is economically depressed.

In Pennsylvania, local property taxes, which are split between municipality and school district, primarily fund school systems.

The problem, the lawsuit states, is that more than 50 percent of the assessed properties in Chester Upland are exempt from local real estate taxes. These include institutions such as Crozer Chester Medical Center, Widener University, Harrah’s Race Track & Casino and the Riverwalk Office Building.

Many properties within the school district boundaries are also delinquent on their taxes, the suit claims.

The complaint alleges that this fall, in order to comply with state education requirements, the district had to recall from furlough a number of teachers who provide educational services to students with disabilities.

“As a result of the reductions of revenues to the School District and the cost of compliance with state and federal laws for educational programs for students of the school district, the School District is experiencing a cash-flow crisis which will result in the inability of the School District to meet its payroll and other costs of the operation beginning on January 18, 2012 and continuing thereafter,” the lawsuit states. “This inability to pay salaries and operating expenses will cause the closing of the schools in the School District and the denial of services to regular and special education students.”

The lawsuit, which was filed Jan. 12 at federal court in Philadelphia by Media, Pa. attorney Leo A. Hackett, seeks a preliminary injunction prohibiting the defendants from withholding state subsidies from the district.

The federal case number is 2:12-cv-00132-MMB.

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