Even though they won’t be paid, employees of the Chester Upland School District in Pennsylvania will be there for the first day of school.
Lindsey Layton of The Washington Post reports that the district has been in the midst of financial and academic problems for decades and is now almost insolvent. Last week, approximately 200 members of the local teachers union voted to work without pay during the beginning of the school year. Joining them were secretaries, janitors, school bus drivers, and administrators.
“The thought of it is very scary,” said John Shelton, 60, dean of students at the district’s only middle school and a 23-year employee. “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.”
Shelton moonlights as a janitor, so at least he will have some income, but he and his colleagues are willing to sacrifice for their students.
“Some of our children, this is all they have as far as safety, their next nourishing meal, people who are concerned for them,” he said. “We are dedicated to these children.”
Most of the 3,300 kids in the district, which is about 20 miles west of Philadelphia, are from low-income families, and this is not the first time the district has faced hard times. In 2012, a federal judge ordered the state to pay the district, and legislatures arranged a bailout, making employees’ checks only a few days late.
Now, says Jeff Sheridan, a spokesperson for Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D), the straits are so dire, the district may have to shut down. He added, however, that the governor was thankful to teachers and other employees who have chosen to work without pay.
The deficit Chester Upland faces is $22 million that could grow to over $46 million unless there is a major intervention. Some of the factors that led to this crash, according to Sheridan, included local mismanagement; state cuts to education under the previous governor; and state law requiring traditional school districts to pay for students who live in the district but attend charter schools.
Charter schools are publicly funded, but privately run, and have been growing to the point that Chester Upland has to shell out about $64 million in tuition payments to charter schools, which is more than it receives in state school aid. There is also a state funding formula law that is generous to special education students who attend charters. The district has to spend $40,000 per student annually for every special education student from its district who enrolls in a charter school.
Last year, Chester Upland had 3,800 students who chose to attend charter schools, according to state data. Another problem that made the situation even worse was that the state missed a major payment to public schools last week, and a Delaware County judge rejected the district’s request to lessen charter school payments by almost $25 million, reports WPVI-TV Philadelphia.
The Philadelphia Public School Notebook writes that the state teachers union, the Pennsylvania State Education Association, is raising funds to supplement teachers’ loss of income. This year, says union president Michele Paulick, the timing is especially bad, since there were no paychecks to teachers during the summer.