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Chester Upland charters to settle special-education costs out of court [updated]

Buses from Chester Upland School District await dismissal from Chester High School on West Ninth Street. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Buses from Chester Upland School District await dismissal from Chester High School on West Ninth Street. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Editor’s note: This story has been updated.

Delaware County Judge Chad Kenney’s announced Tuesday an “agreement in principal” between area charter schools and the Chester Upland School District.

That deal comes after two rounds of hearings in Kenney’s courtroom over the cost of special-education tuition to charter schools.

Kenney had been considering a state-backed financial recovery plan that would reduce special-education payments to Chester Upland charter schools from $40,000 per student to $16,000.

In a statement, the judge said a “memorandum of agreement” was being prepared between the schools and the district. No details of the agreement have been released.

Spokesman for Gov. Tom Wolf, Jeffrey Sheridan, released a statement following the judge’s order that  the state has withdrawn the revised financial recovery plan.

“We are confident in our amended plan as the best path forward, but the administration,  [Pennsylvania Department of Education] and [district receiver Francis] Barnes are continuing discussions with involved parties to reach a resolution that puts Chester Upland on solid financial footing,” Sheridan said.

A school board member named the three negotiating charters as Chester Community Charter School, Widener Partnership Charter School and Chester Charter School for the Arts. Representatives of the state — which has control of the financially distressed district through powers granted in Act 141 — and the school district would not comment on the substance of the negotiations.

A spokesman for Chester Community Charter School affirmed Monday the negotiations were still under way but would not comment on the specifics. Those familiar with the negotiations said Friday that the number being floated by charters was in the ballpark of $28,000 per special-education student — halfway between the current payout and the figure in the recovery plan.

Settling would save both sides on the cost of litigation. It would also necessitate a change in the current financial recovery plan, which budgets for a savings of $22 million in 2015-2016 from the reduction in charter school special-education tuition payments.

Chester Upland, running a $24 million deficit from last school year, could be more than $50 million in the hole in 2016 without drastic restructuring of its costs.

“We do not have a plan B. We do not have a way … to keep the doors open through the entire 2015-2016 school year,” said Pennsylvania Budget Secretary Randy Albright in a hearing last Friday.

“When I come out with my order, there’s going to have to be a plan B,” said Kenney.

The judge rejected an earlier draft of the recovery plan, which he said did not go far enough in stabilizing the district’s finances over the long term and put too much of a financial burden “on the backs of charters.”

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