Judge calls Pa. back to court to account for Chester Upland’s finances

     Science and Discovery High School in Chester, Pa. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

    Science and Discovery High School in Chester, Pa. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

    The court has spoken, and the Chester Upland School District needs a roadmap toward financial stability.

    In a 10-page order released Thursday, Judge Chad Kenney of the Delaware Court of Common Pleas asked Chester Upland receiver Francis Barnes and the Pennsylvania Department of Education to share information about an updated financial recovery plan.

    He called for the state to account for why it had not already submitted an updated recovery plan, a timeline for submitting and implementing a new plan, and a status update. In 41 separate points, Kenney also asked for detailed historical information about the district and its budget, as well as for information about any old debts owed by the district.

    Some questions also broached the topic of Chester Upland’s Catch-22: In seeking to continually turn around the district, does the frequent chaos push students to leave?

    “Doesn’t this year in and year out school in crisis, in danger of not opening approach have the effect of encouraging parents to enroll more of their children in Charters just when it appeared Chester Upland had turned the ship around and was having students re-enroll as was envisioned by Act 141 and in fact, doesn’t it lead to further financial instability?” he wrote.

    The order is also shot through with calls for urgency, coming from someone who has overseen Chester Upland flounder repeatedly through waves of turnaround plans and stopgap funding measures.

    “Isn’t the time to fix this now?”

    Last week, Kenney rejected an earlier proposed financial recovery plan as “wholly inadequate to restore the school district to financial stability” and laid out what he thought was missing.

    Kenney’s decision on the earlier recovery plan had specified that any plan must account for all of Chester Upland’s debts, which include $20.6 million in unpaid loans and millions in back payments owed to the district’s charter schools.

    Education Secretary Pedro Rivera said the state is working on a new plan and is sussing out six or seven possible funding fixes.

    Rivera declined to give details of the plan in its current state, saying options were still being vetted.

    “When you submit a second plan, it had better well researched and comprehensive,” he said.While a recovery plan will help Chester Upland on the path towards long-term financial stability, in the short term the district has is too broke to pay its staff.

    The district relies heavily on dollars from state education coffers, which are tied up thanks a fight in Harrisburg over the shape of the new state budget.

    While legislators hash out a state spending plan, ChesterUpland staff are working without pay and area charter schools are open even though they haven’t received funding since March.

    The only way for money to start flowing from the state, said Rivera, would be for state leaders to pass a budget or to pass an emergency funding measure.

    In the meantime, Judge Kenney is applying pressure for the state to move forward with a plan to fund Chester Upland, sustainably.

    “If the time is now, then why not now,” he wrote.

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