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Why teachers are working for free in Pennsylvania school district

A state budget impasse means the Chester Upland School District has run out of money. But the deeper question is what happens to districts when charter schools start siphoning off large amounts of money.

As public school students in Chester, Pa., prepare for school Wednesday, their teachers will be preparing for something much more daunting than the first day of school: the prospect of weeks – perhaps even months – without a paycheck.

And last week they decided that they’re going to work anyway.

“We’re ready for the students to show up Wednesday morning,” says Dariah Jackson, a teacher at Stetser Elementary School in Chester.

“We all have decided to work without pay,” she continues. She starts to say “until” but then corrects herself. “As long as we can,” she says. “There is no ‘until.’ ”

The Chester Upland School District (CUSD) has struggled with economic and academic problems for years, but now a budget impasse in the state capital, combined with the explosive growth of public charter schools in the district, have conspired to put it on the brink of insolvency.

Districts in states such as Florida, Illinois, and New York are dealing with similar issues as charter schools strain local budgets. But Chester is seen as an extreme case.

CUSD officials informed teachers and support staff last Thursday that they wouldn’t be able to make payroll for the start of the school year. That day, the roughly 200 members of the local teachers union voted unanimously to work without pay. Secretaries, school bus drivers, janitors, and administrators will also be working without pay. 

It’s unclear when money might become available, says Wythe Keever, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Educators Association, the parent union of the CUSD teachers.

The district serves around 3,300 students and is located 20 miles west of Philadelphia; it is the sixth-poorest school district in Pennsylvania, according to the state’s Budget and Policy Center.

Years of financial mismanagement and a poor tax base have left CUSD with a $22 million operating deficit. Since 2010, the state has provided the district with at least $74 million in one-time cash infusions, the Daily Times reports. But the state budget is now 52 days overdue, and it's unclear when an infusion of cash might come.

Critics argue that the main reason CUSD can’t pay its teachers or its deficit is the three privately operated but publicly funded public charter schools in the district. A receiver appointed to the district after the state put it in financial recovery status in 2012 points to a multimillion dollar debt owed to Chester area charter schools as an exacerbating factor that must be resolved before the school district can move forward.

State law requires school districts to pay the charters for every student in the district that goes to a charter school. But as enrollment in charters grows, school districts pay more out of their own pockets, services in public schools can decline, and more students may leave for charters.

The Chester Community Charter School, the largest charter in CUSD, opened in 1998 with 100 students. The school now enrolls 2,900 students, nearly as many as are in the traditional public school system. CUSD currently makes about $64 million in tuition payments to local charter schools, according to Keever, more than it receives in state school aid.

Enrollment in publicly funded charter schools has increased nearly sixfold in the state between 2000-01 and 2013-14, according to the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center.

Peter Greene, a high school English teacher in Venango County in northwest Pennsylvania, argues that “there is no connection between what it costs the charter to educate the student and what the charter receives for that purpose.”

For each special-education student in a Chester Upland charter school, the district has to pay $40,000 per year – as opposed to the $16,000 the district allocates for special-needs students.

CUSD receiver Francis Barnes and district officials went to court to try and alter the funding structure. Though that portion of the proposal was rejected last week, Judge Chad Kenney noted that legislative formulas allow charter schools to pocket between $14,000 to $40,000 per special-needs student.

“It is clear that the Legislature did not mean for its averages to provide such windfalls to the Charter school industry in a distressed district,” Judge Kenney wrote.

A step toward a solution, some say, could be to have the state, not the district, directly cover the costs for the charter schools, as is the case in states such as Massachusetts, Texas, and Ohio. When states including Pennsylvania, Florida, Illinois, and New York, require districts to cover the expenses of charter schools, that “places a greater financial burden on districts,” says a January Pew Charitable Trusts study.

For its part, the Chester Community Charter School disputes that it is to blame for the district's financial problems and says it shares in the financial hardship. 

"It is unfair and inaccurate for the Receiver to characterize the Chester Upland School District’s financial woes as a result of charter school payments," said David Clark, CEO of the school, in a statement on the school's website.

Mr. Clark says the school has not been paid by the district since March 19 but still “opened its doors to its students … in spite of the lack of funding.”

Regardless of their opinions on how the shortfall should be fixed, all sides praise CUSD staff for their decision to work without pay.

Unfortunately, the teachers are no strangers to the situation. They voted to work without pay in January 2012 when a budget shortfall threatened the district. That time, the state government was able to negotiate a bailout package and the teachers started receiving paychecks a few days later.

This time, the budget impasse and the growth of the charter schools mean “the situation appears to be significantly worse,” says Keever. A 2003 budget debate lasted into December.

Mr. Greene, who also blogs about public education, says he once found himself in a financial situation like the one facing CUSD staff. A few days after he was hired for his first teaching job, his union voted to strike.

The lack of income wasn’t the only hard part, he says.

“The open-endedness of it is hard as well,” he says.

“You don’t know how long you have to get by,” he continues. “If any of those teachers have kids in college then God bless them.” 

Despite the tensions, Ms. Jackson of Stetser Elementary says the mood among the teachers and staff at the meeting last Thursday was “great.”

“Everyone was hopeful,” she says.

Speaking to the Monitor on Monday, two days before her students come in for their first day, she says she is still hopeful that the state will pass a budget soon.

Until then, she’ll keep coming to work.

“There’s no specific time when I’m going to say, ‘This is it, I’m done,’ ” she says. “For now I’m here for as long as I can.”

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