HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - One of Pennsylvania’s poorest school districts says it cannot afford to pay its staff amid an entrenched state budget stalemate, and district and state officials had no immediate answers Friday about where they will find the money to keep the schools operating.
Chester Upland School District, just south of Philadelphia, said it cannot meet a scheduled payroll on Sept. 9. Teachers and support staff, including bus drivers and secretaries, voted Thursday to continue working if they are not paid. The fall semester is scheduled to start next week.
“We’ve always put our students first, and we always will,” said Michele Paulick, president of the Chester Upland Education Association, the district teacher’s union.
Gov. Tom Wolf’s office said drastic action will be necessary to ensure the deficit-ridden school district can operate through the entire school year, even if the district is able to open its doors on schedule. State officials said they are considering their options on how to deal with it.
The state missed a major aid payment to public schools earlier this week because of the stalemate. Meanwhile, a Delaware County judge on Tuesday rejected a request by the Wolf administration and the district to shave Chester Upland’s payments to charter schools by nearly $25 million in the 2015-16 school year.
Education Secretary Pedro Rivera said the administration has no emergency funding to offer until Wolf and the Legislature enact a budget for the fiscal year that began July 1. Meanwhile, his department is trying to help in any way it can, including instructional and technical support, he said.
Going back to court over the charter payments is an option under consideration, Rivera said, and the Wolf administration believes it has a good understanding of Judge Chad Kenney’s outlook.
“Our job now is to get a good strong case to present to him,” Rivera said.
Chester Upland said in January 2012 that it couldn’t afford to pay employees, but the state used emergency funds to keep the schools open. All told, the state has given the district more than $74 million in one-time emergency funds in the past five years to keep it operating, according to the Wolf administration.
Chester Upland, which is under state oversight, served about 3,400 students last year, and another 3,800 attended charter schools, according to state data. Its approved budget for the year is about $133 million, about half of which ends up going to charter schools. Most of the district’s revenue comes from the state government, largely because of the district’s poverty.
The district’s average household income was just under $27,000 in 2012, according to state data, putting it in Pennsylvania’s bottom 10 out of 500 school districts.
The district is required to pay charter schools about $40,000 per year for each special-education student they enroll, according to the Wolf administration. That is more than twice the amount the district spends on its special-education students and more than any other district in the state, the administration said.
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