CHESTER, Pa. — Nearly two decades after being declared financially distressed, the school system in this struggling Philadelphia suburb faces a new and even more daunting crisis: It may run out of cash.
Administrators in the Chester Upland School District, one of Pennsylvania's poorest systems and once the center of a failed experiment in school privatization, say they won't be able to make payroll Wednesday unless the state advances the district $18.7 million in expected funding. While teachers and staff have vowed to continue working, the situation has thrown the system into new turmoil and has parents scrambling for other options.
Hoping to avoid a shutdown, the school filed a lawsuit Thursday, declaring a "cash-flow crisis" and asking a judge to tell state Education Secretary Ronald Tomalis that he must act to provide students in the district with a "thorough and efficient educational system." Meanwhile, anxious parents are looking at other options for their children, such as sending them to private schools or having them live with relatives and go to other public schools.
"They're playing us like we're a joke," said Darius Fassett, 16, a junior at Science and Discovery High School, who is looking into cyber charter school, which would provide instruction over the Internet, because he doesn't want to hurt his college chances. "If it were a different district, with higher test scores, they wouldn't be playing with us."
It was 1994 when the district was declared financially distressed by the state and the schools remained governed by state oversight boards until 2010. During that period, the system was handed over to for-profit Edison Schools in 2001. Four years later, Edison withdrew, in part because it said it had not been paid millions of dollars in fees.
The current school board and administration at Chester Upland — which gets about 70 percent of its budget from the state — say they need the $18.7 million from the state to keep going. In December, the district asked for the money to be advanced, but was denied.
Now, both sides are meeting and hoping to resolve the situation before Wednesday.
"We're doing everything we can to keep the district running," said Thom Persing, acting deputy superintendent. Persing said he is hopeful the situation will be resolved before Wednesday, but that the school is trying to set up contingency plans in case the state funding doesn't arrive. In that scenario, he said, officials would first focus on trying to preserve programs for special education students and seniors.
Gloria Zoranski, president of the Chester Upland Education Association, said the system's 200 teachers want to continue working as long as they can if the district runs out of cash, but that they would decide on an individual basis whether that was feasible.
"We're trying to hold on as long as possible," said Zoranski, a high school English teacher.
The state said it is concerned about the students' education, but fears the district is mismanaging its finances. Tim Eller, an Education Department spokesman, said advancing money is not fixing the problem. "The mismanagement of money is the utmost concern," Eller said.
Between 2006 and 2010, according to the district's lawsuit, its budget rose from $85 million to $113 million and the workforce grew from 590 to 735. Enrollment over that same period fell from 4,600 to 3,700. The complaint also suggests the district's charter school payments — which amount to $43 million in the current school year — have contributed to its financial troubles.
The state said the board brought back several dozen staff members this year without a way to cover the $6 million cost, and noted that the budget also did not account for $27 million for payroll, insurance, unemployment compensation and other costs. School officials say they inherited their budget problems after years of state control.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that a bipartisan group of Delaware County lawmakers has asked Gov. Corbett on Friday to again declare the district financially distressed, which would trigger a state takeover. They called for an emergency meeting Tuesday to figure out how to avoid a shutdown. Corbett spokeswoman Janet Kelley had no comment on the letter's contents but said the governor "looks forward to meeting" with lawmakers on the issue "at the earliest possible time."
All of the details are virtually irrelevant to parents and students who just want to know if school will go on next week and beyond.
Breon Patterson, 17, a junior, said his mother has talked to him about moving to a neighboring district or going to live with his father in Camden, N.J., if the system shuts down. They are far from alone as parents are coming out in droves online and around the community, pleading for both sides to prevent a catastrophe.
Danyel Jennings, a nurse who has gotten hundreds of signatures for an online petition to plead for the state funding, said she would have to home-school her 16-year-old son if the school shuts down.
"I don't think it should have come to this," she said.