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    Teachers Working for Free in Bankrupt Pennsylvania School District

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    As the struggling Chester Upland School District in Pennsylvania faces near collapse, 200 members of a local teacher’s union voted unanimously to work without pay once the school year begins this Wednesday.

    The school district has been facing financial and academic problems for decades and it can no longer make payroll.

    “The thought of it is very scary,” John Shelton, dean of students at the district’s only middle school, told the Washington Post. “It’s mind-boggling because there’s truly uncertainty. But we are all in agreement that we will come to work, so that the children can get an education.”

    Jeff Sheridan, a spokesperson for Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, said the district is looking at a $22 million deficit which could grow to $46 million without major intervention.

    “They are in such dire financial shape right now,” Sheridan said, “unless something drastic happens. . . the school district is in danger of not existing.”

    Sheridan points to several factors for the district’s downfall including local mismanagement, state cuts in education funding under the previous governor, and state laws governing charter schools – which are publically funded but privately owned.

    Chester Upland spends $64 million in local charter school tuition payments. That’s equivalent to more than what the district gets in state school aid.

    The district also pays $40,000 per year for every special education student who enrolls in charter schools. That’s twice the amount that Chester Upland spends on its own students with special needs, according to The Washington Post.

    Today, charter schools enroll nearly half of the students living in the Chester Upland School District.

    Chester Community Charter, the largest charter school in the district enrolls 29,000 students or nearly as many as the amount of kids that attend the traditional public school system.

    This week, a Pennsylvania judge declined Governor Wolf’s request to reduce district payments made for special education students attending charter schools by half during the 2015 to 2016 school year. This would have reduced costs by about $21 million.

    However, the judge did approve some of Wolf’s suggestions including a forensic audit, the appointment of a financial turnaround specialist, and the restructuring of a loan agreement with the state Department of Education.

    Chester Upland’s financial problems span back to 1994, when it was first classified by the state as being in “economic distress.” Between 2003 and 2009, the district overspent $25.1 million. 

    Between 2009 and 2010 and in 2012, it overspent by an additional $19 million. It has received more than $74 million in state bailouts since 2010.

    In 2012, a similar financial crisis also prompted teachers to choose to work without pay. Eventually, a federal judge ordered the state to pay the district and lawmakers devised a bailout system so paychecks would arrive just a couple of days late. Sheridan, Gov. Wolf’s spokesman, said the burden is much heavier this time around.

    The Chester Upland district currently serves about 3,300 students. Most of them come from low-income households.

    “Some of our children, this is all they have as far as safety, their next nourishing meal, people who are concerned for them,” said Shelton, the middle school dean. “We are dedicated to these children.”


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