In the Chester Upland School District, local leaders kicked off the new school year with pomp and circumstance. The mayor of Chester gave a speech. Balloons hung in front of Toby Farms Elementary School, where officials greeted families and a DJ played music out back.
The cheery touches provided a backdrop for local officials to put a positive spin on what has been a slew of bad financial news for the district.
Last week, district receiver Francis Barnes and superintendent Gregory Shannon announced that Chester Upland doesn’t have the funds to make payroll. Without dollars trickling down from the state, the district is in dire financial straits.
Prior to that announcement, a Delaware County judge rejected a state-backed financial recovery plan that would have reduced payments to charter schools – which educate about half of Chester Upland’s students – to try to set the district on a long climb back to a balanced budget.
In response these blows, the teachers union voted to work without pay. Administrative and support staff are also staying in their positions.
In spite of these problems, on the first day of school the message from leaders was one of commitment and survival.
“I know a lot of people say we’re going through struggles, and we are,” said state Rep. Thaddeus Kirkland. “They’ve been wanting Chester Upland to fail for the past 20-plus years. Each time, and every time, we’ve risen like the phoenix.”
School board president Anthony Johnson echoed that sentiment.
“You know, we’re dealing with a lot of issues coming into the school year, but I want everyone to be unified — teachers, parents, students,” said Johnson.
Johnson acknowledged to the clusters of parents and union boosters that this isn’t the first time Chester Upland schools have run out of money. But he said that was not the focus for the day.
“So we’re going to forget about that today and forget about that the rest of the school year,” said Johnson. “You guys focus on being educated. Because that’s one of the things they say we’re not.”
One thing that did not come up during those tidy speeches was how the financial burden has fallen on Chester Upland staff.
A fifth-grade teacher at Toby Farms Elementary in Brookhaven greets students on the first day of school in Chester-Upland. (Laura Benshoff/WHYY)
Business as usual
The day before school started, Chester Upland maintenance worker and school videographer Kevin Thomas was edging the lawn in front of Stetser Elementary School.
He said he wasn’t surprised to hear that the district would not be able to pay staff.
“We’ve been going through this for the last 15 years in the district,” he said. “And, every year, it comes up new news.”
Still, Thomas wanted it to be clear he wasn’t complaining and described the district as “one big family.”
“It’s not just affecting me. It’s affecting bus drivers, crossing guards, custodians, maintenance workers,” he said. “If the teachers not getting paid, then we not getting paid, too.”
Inside Stetser, special education teacher Dariah Jackson had just about finished putting her classroom together. The bulletin boards were covered in colorful paper, and she showed off some stools she’d made herself — orange milk crates with school-themed fabric cushions — for a special group meeting table in the room.
She’d bought the supplies for the stools out of her own pocket, but said that most of her materials and decorations could be recycled from last year. For now, the only thing she’ll be cutting back on due to budget cuts will be her cache of afternoon snacks.
“We’ll still have snack, but it won’t be as much,” she said. “We’re working without pay, but I still want to give [students] what they expect.”
Jackson said she’s luckier than some other teachers who have families to support, so they’re “basically tapping into savings. Whatever you saved for: vacation, your kids college tuition,” she said.
Needed: ‘Funding opportunity’
On opening day, superintendent Shannon said the decision for all to go without pay was “no pain and no stress.” While staying uniformly positive, he said that all staff would continue to show up and do their jobs out of commitment to educating Chester’s children.
However, long term, Shannon said, the district needs a “funding opportunity.”
“What I hope happens is we get a fair funding opportunity for all of Chester’s children. Public, charter, parochial, charter school,” he said.
What shape that opportunity will take — whether it’s a quick infusion of cash or a rewrite of the state’s education funding policies — isn’t clear.
When asked for comment, Jeff Sheridan, a spokesman for Gov. Tom Wolf, said there was nothing new to report on funding Chester Upland.
Chester is not alone in feeling purse strings tighten with no money flowing from state coffers. Philadelphia has taken out a $275 million loan to cover some of its costs. Bethlehem officials said they’ll only pay charters a fraction of what they’re owed until there is a budget.
What remains to be seen is whether Harrisburg will act.
Earlier this year, Wolf tried to push through a budget that would have added $400 million to education funding, paid for by taxing shale gas drilling and redistributing other taxes. The Legislature unanimously rejected the governor’s taxation plan and whole budget has never come to a vote. In turn, Wolf vetoed a Republican-authored budget.
Spokesman for the House Republican caucus, Steve Miskin, seated the blame for the struggling districts squarely in the governor’s lap.
“They’re the ones that the governor’s full veto is just hitting them smack on the chin,” Miskin said.
Supporters of the governor’s budget proposal maintain more money is needed it to restore dwindling education dollars.
“The governor’s budget proposal took a hugely important step in restoring the funds that were cut by Republicans over the last four years,” said Sheridan.
In essence, state leaders on both sides say they’re sorry — but it’s the other guy’s fault that Chester Upland teachers aren’t getting paid.
Meanwhile, Chester Upland teachers and staff are trying to accentuate the positive.
“As you can see right now, our lights are on, the water’s running, teachers are getting ready, our kids are coming in,” said Jackson. “We’re hopeful that everything will work out fine, eventually.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misrepresented the parts of Governor Wolf’s budget proposal that have come before the legislature.