Cybers appealing funding cuts in Chester Upland district

     (NewsWorks file photo)

    (NewsWorks file photo)

    Four cybercharters are appealing a case out of Delaware County that reduced their funding for special-education students last month.

    In that decision, Judge Chad Kenney ruled that the Chester Upland School District could cut special-education tuition payments to all charters from $40,000 a student to just over $27,000.

    That ruling came after two months of hearings on an adequate financial recovery plan for a school district plagued by debt for the two decades. Kenney also ordered the state to include more money for Chester Upland in its general education budget.

    The cuts to special-education tuition payments would save the school district more than $10 million a year. The state-appointed school district receiver, Francis Barnes, had been seeking a reduction from $40,000 to $16,000, the amount determined fair by a bipartisan commission on special education.

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    About half of Chester Upland students go to charters. The largest charter operators, which operate brick-and-mortar schools, agreed to the reduction before the ruling. The cybercharters, which serve students across the state, did not.

    While only cybercharters are heading back to court, the outcome of their appeal could affect any charter schools that take students from financially challenged school districts.

    “There seems to be a conflict between the charter school law, which sets the reimbursement formula, and the way in which Judge Kenney has interpreted the school district financial recovery law,” said Phil Murren, counsel for Commonwealth Connections Academy Charter School, one of four cybercharters appealing Kenney’s decision.

    By appealing whether Kenney has the jurisdiction to cut charter tuition payments, the cybercharters could force Pennsylvania’s higher courts to determine the strength of the school district financial recovery law. That law lets districts that have been declared financially distressed — including Chester, Duquesne, and Philadelphia — take extraordinary measures to balance their books.

    Sometimes those measures — say, cutting charter school tuition payments in Chester or canceling a union contract in Philadelphia — come up against other laws.

    Agora Cyber Charter School, Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School and Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School filed appeals with Commonwealth Connections Academy Charter School.

    Barnes, the school district receiver, and the Pennsylvania Department of Education now have the opportunity to raise any issues they might have with Kenney’s ruling in a cross-appeal.

    A spokeswoman for the department of education confirmed that the state will submit a cross-appeal, but could not say on what grounds. Representatives from the other cybercharters declined to comment.

    The case is headed to Commonwealth Court in 2016.

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