Interesting piece in the Times about a failing PA school district:
he Chester Upland School District is more than $20 million in debt, its bank account is almost empty and it cannot afford to pay teachers past the end of this month.
To make matters worse, the local charter school, with which the district must divide its financing, is suing the district over unpaid bills.
The district’s fiscal woes are the product of a toxic brew of budget cuts, mismanagement and the area’s poverty. Its problems are compounded by the Chester Community Charter School, a nonprofit institution that is managed by a for-profit company and that now educates nearly half of the district’s students.
The district sees the charter as a vampire, sucking up more than its fair share of scarce resources. The state, it says, is giving the charter priority over the district.
“It’s not competition, it’s just draining resources from the district,” said Catherine Smith, a principal at Columbus Elementary, a district school. “It’s a charter school on steroids.”
The charter says that it is also part of the public school system and that the district, its primary source of financing, has not paid it anything since last spring. The state has taken over payments, but even those are late, it says.
Chester may be a harbinger of fiscal decline. At least six other Pennsylvania school districts are bordering on insolvency, according to State Representative Joseph F. Markosek, the Democratic chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
Chester’s troubles also show just how deeply budget cuts bite in poor districts. With a median household income of $26,000, just half of the state median, Chester has one of the state’s most meager tax bases. State financing makes up about 70 percent of its budget. For comparison, nearby Radnor Township, with a median household income of $85,000, draws just 10 percent of its school budget from state money, according to a town spokesman. The largest share is real estate taxes, at 83 percent.
“Poor schools in this state are underfunded,” said Thomas Persing, acting deputy superintendent for the Chester Upland district. “Poor kids aren’t going to get the same shot as wealthy kids. That’s the society we are in now.”
But the district has been troubled for years. The state took over its finances in 1994 but has since handed control back to the community. Five state administrations, including the current one of Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, have been unable to fix the district. Budget cuts may be painful, the state argues, but they are not the root of the district’s problems.
Of course budget cuts aren’t the “root of the problem.” The root of the problem is the asinine way we fund schools with property taxes, so that poor communities with low real estate values are constantly struggling to find funding. Then recognize that additional funding for schools comes in the form of levy’s, leaving school districts constantly wondering about the whims of voters and whether or not they will be able to count on that money. Add on some charter schools run by for profit organizations, and you have a disaster. That’s the root of the problem.
For a society that loves to claim it supports education, we have some really stupid ways of showing it.