Orwell Award Announcement SusanOhanian.Org Home

Chester Upland teachers say they will keep working after district funds run out Jan. 11

Ohanian Comment: Here's the January 2012 news from the Chester Upland school district. One could say the situation in Upland-Chester is complicated, with intertwined opportunism, greed, earnestness, and naivete--and poverty--that could serve as the background for a novel with the scope of War and Peace. Or one could say it is simple: The governor wants charters, and apparently he doesn't think it's good enough for charters to bleed the public school district of over half of its operating funds.

From Gov. Tom Corbett's website:

Strengthening Pennsylvaniaâs Charter School Law
Quality charter schools work as laboratories for education innovation and creativity that infuse true competition into the public school system. The injection of competition and choice in public education has benefited students, and Governor Corbettâs proposal will improve the quality and accountability of the commonwealthâs charter schools. The Governorâs proposal will create a statewide authorizer, allow additional authorizers of charter schools, and will increase the ability of districts to convert buildings to charter schools. The proposal will also improve the system of payments to charter schools and establish a committee to examine the financing of charter schools and cyber charter schools to make recommendations on future improvements to funding formulas.

from "What Would Ronnie Say About Montco republicans Now?"
by Jason Fagone
Philadelphia Magazine
August 2011

According to Pennsylvania's Campaign Finance Reporting website, Vahan H. Gureghian was the largest individual donor to the current governor, Tom Corbett, over the past three years, giving him more than $330,000. Gureghian has also given $65,000 to the Pennsylvania House Republican Campaign Committee, more than $60,000 to committees connected to powerful Republican State Senator Dominic Pileggi, and $208,000 to the national Republican Governors' Association, led by Texas governor and presidential candidate Rick Perry. Altogether, Gureghian and his wife, Danielle, have contributed about $1.5 million to Republican causes in the past five years alone. . . .

Gureghian moved to Montco from neighboring Delaware County and completed construction on a house in Gladwyne in 2007. But not just any house: one of the biggest mansions on the Main Line, nearly 31,000 square feet of soaring columns and French Provincial bling. It reportedly has 10 bedrooms and 11 bathrooms. Also a bowling alley. And a moat. Bruce Castor told the Inquirer at the time, âThe closest thing I can compare it to is photographs I have seen of Versailles.â. . .

THE NEW STYLE OF politics has been hard for many in Montco to swallow. For one thing, they just flat-out fear Gureghian and his allies. âTheyâre like the Mean Girls in middle school,â says one longtime political observer. Rumor has it more than one prominent figure in the county has received a letter from Gureghian threatening to sue for defamation, and whether or not the rumors are true, people believe theyâre true; several told me that if I printed their names in my story, Gureghian would ruin them. Lending credence to this belief is the fact that in 2009, Gureghian sued the Inquirer for defamation in regard to a series of newspaper articles that criticized the fiscal management of Gureghianâs Chester Community Charter School. Brian Tierney, former publisher of the Inquirer and Daily News, is a longtime GOP loyalist; in Republican circles, suing Tierney is like suing apple pie.

Gureghian has long declined to answer questions about his financial dealings, even when his deals involve taxpayer money. In 1992, a reporter from the Inquirer called Gureghian to ask him about a modest three-story building he owned in Chester County, for which he was charging the county government $276,000 a year in rent and operating costs. Gureghian said, âMy view is that as a private businessman, my financial information is private. ⦠Iâm not accountable to anybody.â Gureghianâs penchant for secrecy came up once again in a recent investigation by The Notebook, a nonprofit newspaper covering public education in Philadelphia. Notebookâs Benjamin Herold and Dale Mezzacappa discovered that a testing company working for the state had found statistical irregularities in the standardized test scores of 89 schools across Pennsylvania. Gureghianâs school, Chester Community- Charter School, had been flagged for aberrations 13 times. For example, Gureghianâs eighth-graders improved their math scores from 22.1 percent âproficientâ to 65.4 percent proficient in just one yearââgains that the report deemed improbable,â according to The Notebook. There were also âunusual patterns of erasuresâ on student tests at CCCS, in which wrong answers were changed to right answers. When Notebook reporters sent the school some questions, guess what happened? Thatâs right: The paper received a ânotice to cease and desist all defamatory communications concerning alleged PSSA âcheatingâ at CCCS.â The schoolâs attorney added, âThe report repeatedly stresses that there is absolutely no proof of âcheating.ââ The Notebook ran the story.

In June, Vahan Gureghian went to Harrisburg, where the Republican-led legislature- was forging a controversial charter school bill, one of a few concerning- the operations of state charter schools. According to multiple sources, Gureghian had an agenda. What he wanted, apparently-, was to create more secrecy.

The way Gureghianâs charter school in Chester works, the school itself is public. It receives taxpayer money. But a private, for-profit companyâGureghianâs Charter School Management Inc.âmanages the schoolâs finances. It owns the buildings, leases them to the school, pays the teachers and, according to a 2008 report by the Inquirer, has collected $60.6 million in public funds since the school was started in 1999. Gureghian wanted to make sure the bill would exempt charter-school management organizations like CSMI from state sunshine laws. According to Republican State Representative Mike Vereb, who considers himself a friend of Gureghian, âThe language that Vahan was looking to do had to do with vendors of a school ⦠contractors.â The effect of such language would be to hide details of the financial operations of charter schools from public scrutiny. Presumably, this would make it harder for Gureghianâs competitors to copy his financial ârecipe.â

That language appeared in an early draft of the bill. But then something happened. A group of charter-school operators- got wind of it, and they were âincredibly incensed,â says one longtime political observer. âBecause it strikes at the heart of what charter schools are all about.â The point of the charter-school movement is to share what works in education. Even Governor Corbett, the beneficiary of $330,000 in Gureghian funds, acknowledged this when he visited Gureghianâs charter school in April. âWhat youâre doing here needs to be reported to all the people of Pennsylvania, so they can understand what can be accomplished if thereâs a vision,â Corbett said. But how can you report what works if the recipe of each school is secret? âHow are you going to make schools better? Whatâs the point?â the observer asks.

Going to bat against Gureghian, the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools fought, successfully, to turn the secrecy clause back into a sunshine clause. The language was never voted on or formally debated, and the charter-school proposals were tabled until the fall session. So while the coalition, which declined to comment for this story, won this round, there will certainly be another. . . .

Questions about Chester-Upland and Charter Schools in General

Christine Johnson Questions:
I don't know why this situation is bothering me. I'm just a regular person. I'm not an educator, not a politician, I don't have children in Chester-Upland...

  • Can the State take over and give Vahan Gureghian's charter school management the right to manage all the schools?

  • Why is the State only pushing for-profit charters schools on low-performing districts?

  • Are there studies that prove lower-income students do better in Gureghians Schools?

  • If so, why not let them take over Tredyffrin/Easttown SD? Just imagine what Gureghian could do with the kids in "Blue Ribbon" schools...

  • Do Charter Schools actually save taxpayers money?

  • Are investment companies, who are big donors to PACs who support pro-voucher, pro-school choice politicians, just trying to make money?

  • Does anyone know how much money would be made if PA outsourced all its schools? Gureghian made over $60 million? in the past ten years from Chester/Upland alone.

  • Why are some politicians saying that school choice is the "next big step in the civil rights movement"?

  • Chester Upland teachers to work without pay

    Dan Hardy
    Philadelphia Inquirer
    January 4, 2012

    The Chester Upland School District, running out of money, will not be able to pay its staff after Wednesday, but teachers and support staff there say they will keep working without pay.

    At a union meeting at Chester High School on Tuesday night, the employees passed a resolution saying they would stay on "as long as we are individually able."

    Columbus Elementary School math and literacy teacher Sara Ferguson, who has taught in Chester Upland for 21 years, said after the meeting, "It's alarming. It's disturbing. But we are adults; we will make a way. The students don't have any contingency plan. They need to be educated, so we intend to be on the job."

    The unions asked the Corbett administration to provide financial aid for the district. A similar request by the school board was turned down last month.

    "We're asking that elected officials in Harrisburg take responsibility," said Wythe Keever, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association who attended the Chester gathering.

    In a Dec. 22 letter to the Chester Upland school board, state Education Secretary Ron Tomalis said the board had failed to properly manage its finances and would not get any additional funds.

    Chester Upland is expected to fall about $19 million short this school year - almost 20 percent of its $96 million budget. The district, which depends on state aid for close to 70 percent of its funding, lost millions from Harrisburg last year because of statewide budget cuts, many of which came down hardest on poorer districts.

    Also, about 45 percent of its students attend two charter schools in the city. District payments to charter schools this year are projected at $43 million - 45 percent of the total budget.

    Payments to the charters are being taken out of the state's budget allocations for Chester Upland, so they will continue even after the district runs out of funds for staff salaries and other obligations.

    Still, the charters have not received all they are due.

    The Chester Community Charter School, the state's largest, sued the district and the state late last year, saying that payments so far have fallen $3.8 million short of what it should have gotten.

    The district shed about 40 percent of its professional staff and about half of its unionized support staff before school began last fall. There are now about 200 professionals and 65 school support staff; average class size is over 40 in some schools.

    Two administrators, the former acting superintendent and former acting assistant superintendent, were laid off in late December; their salaries had totaled $360,000 a year.

    Chester Upland has already withheld pay hikes totaling about $800,000 from its teachers, in violation of the contract with them.

    The district has no superintendent; it is led by acting assistant superintendent Thomas Persing, a former Montgomery County superintendent who was hired in November, for $800 a day.

    Suit filed to force Chester-Upland school funding

    Dan Hardy
    Philadelphia Inquirer
    January 12, 2012

    The school board and some parents in Delaware County's Chester Upland School District filed suit in federal court today against the state, the education department and legislative leaders, asking that the district be adequately funded through the end of the school year, at a cost of about $20.7 million.

    The money should come from state allocations normally due the district which are now being diverted to pay charter schools, the lawsuit said, and from state education department reserve funds.

    State officials have repeatedly said they will not send money to the district, which they said caused its own problems through irresponsible spending.

    Vigil held to save Chester-Upland School District

    ABC News

    by John Rawlins

    January 12, 2012

    CHESTER, Pa. -- A vigil was held Thursday evening by those who want to save the Chester-Upland School District.

    The district is broke. Officials say it is saddled with debt from a prior state takeover and fresh cuts from the Corbett Administration.

    The folks are petitioning the governor to step up and stabilize the situation.

    "We need him to keep his campaign promise. He promised every child regardless of zip code will have access to quality education," vigil organizer Danyel Jennings said.

    The district has only $100,000 in the bank; it won't be able to make its million dollar payroll next week.

    The district and Harrisburg have been trying to find common ground for months.

    "They have said they would like to help, but they find no way in which they can do it; they say they do not have the money," Acting Deputy Superintendent Thom Persing said.

    The teachers and others who work here have vowed to work for nothing at least for now.

    Some including union officials think this grim situation did not occur by accident, that the governor who wants school vouchers and is a backer of charter schools is sending a signal.

    "This is sending a signal and harming the students at the school district, unfortunately. [This signal is] that he is not a fan of public education and he is for privatizing public education so it is no longer public," Lind Cook of the Pennsylvania State Education Association said.

    A Department of Education spokesperson says this is not a case of school choice or school voucher issues. The spokesperson says that what happened is local to Chester-Upland, adding the state has sent extra money to the district before; the school board has not been the tough decisions it needs to make.

    Is there a solution for Chester Upland's problems?

    By Dan Hardy and John P. Martin
    Philadelphia Inquirer
    Jan. 23, 2012

    Sara Ferguson grew up in Chester, and, like her mother, aunt, and grandfather, chose to be a teacher there. For 21 years, she has taught at Columbus Elementary School, and often it seems each year is worse than the last.

    Program cuts, staff furloughs, and claims of mismanagement are routine for the Chester Upland School District. Nearly half its 6,625 students have flocked to charter schools, many during the time the state ran the district. No superintendent lasts more than a few years; no turnaround plan ever takes root.

    Ferguson, 48, sees teachers as the only vestige of stability. But even they cannot stem the tide, as class sizes swell to more than 40, and money dwindles for the most basic supplies.

    "Things never got better for the children," she said.

    Her words sounded like a eulogy, which might not be a stretch. After decades on the brink - and as a petri dish for state control, privatization, and charter schools - Chester Upland seems to be barreling toward a meltdown. Its fate could ripple statewide.

    Last week, a federal judge told the state to give the district a $3.2 million advance, enough to cover payroll and bills for a month. U.S. District Judge Michael M. Baylson's order delayed, but did not defuse, the school system's crisis. The shortfall, officials say, could hit $20 million by June.

    Another hearing is scheduled for Friday.

    Gov. Corbett agreed to abide by the judge's order, but he also signaled that the Delaware County district - which sued for the money - could become a battleground in a broader war.

    Corbett has made the funding and management of public schools a signature issue, and he has pushed legislation to establish state-appointed control boards with power to cancel teacher contracts, convert schools into charters, and send students to other districts. The governor also will not rule out closing Chester Upland.

    Saying that students would be able to finish the school year, Corbett and Sen. Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Del.) said "the present structure is simply unsustainable" in a statement Friday.

    The night before, about 75 people packed a school board meeting in Chester, vowing to save their schools. "This didn't happen in one year," said Wanda Mann, the school board president. "I think we've had 13 superintendents and I don't know how many control boards and one empowerment board - and the problems still exist, educationally and financially."

    Chester Upland Teacher Lauded by President

    by Mark Nootbarr
    90.5 Public Radio
    Jan. 27, 2012

    A schoolteacher from the embattled Chester Upland School District in suburban Philadelphia remembers her view of Tuesdayâs State of the Union Address from the First Ladyâs box as a sight to behold. Sara Ferguson sat alongside the First Lady, the husband of former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, the wife of the late Steve Jobs, and billionaire Warren Buffettâs secretary.

    Fergusonâs district recently sued Pennsylvania for emergency funding to stay open. She said says sheâs not the leader of or the spokeswoman for the Chester Upland teachers, she is just one of the many faculty members who promised to keep coming to work even if they couldnât be paid. âMany of us, you know, have different financial situations, but we all came together and decided that we were going to put what we say, our values, into action, and show the whole United States that weâre committed to our students, and thatâs what we did.â

    Draft of a Corbett plan for Chester Upland district stirs a debate

    By Dan Hardy

    Philadelphia Inquirer
    January 27, 2012

    As Delaware County's Chester Upland School District descended into insolvency this winter, the Corbett administration was largely mute on its plans for a solution.

    A draft legislative proposal from the governor's office made public earlier this month by several state legislators sheds more light on his views.

    It calls for state takeovers of distressed districts, starting with Chester Upland and Duquesne City, that would put Philadelphia School Reform Commission-type oversight boards in place.

    Those boards could cancel teachers' contracts and turn all district schools into charters.

    The proposal, dated Nov. 4, is labeled a "Confidential Draft" for "fiscal distress legislation." No bill has been introduced in the legislature.

    In an e-mail, state Education Department spokesman Tim Eller said the draft "was intended to be a starting point for discussions." He added: "The Governor, along with the PA Department of Education, believes all tools from the toolbox should be on the table for possible consideration."

    With the recent widespread public discussion of Chester Upland's plight, he said, "we expect the heightened awareness of the problem will help expedite these discussions."

    Senate Education Committee Chairman Jeffrey Piccola (R., Dauphin) said Thursday that he hoped to introduce proposed legislation in the next few weeks, though it would not necessarily be modeled after Corbett's draft.

    The Chester Upland district, dogged by state funding cuts and payments to charter schools that nearly half its students attend, was on the verge of bankruptcy until a federal judge this month ordered the state to advance it $3.2 million. The district, which was under state control from 1994 to 2010 and is now led by an elected school board, still needs about $20 million to finish the school year.

    The Corbett proposal drew angry responses from several Democrats, including Andy Dinniman (D., Chester). "This proposal is designed to destroy public education in the most distressed districts," he said. "It would create a Kmart-style second-class education system in the poorest school districts in Pennsylvania. It would perpetuate a separate but unequal situation."

    The suggested legislation would immediately apply to only Chester Upland and Duquesne, but Dinniman said it could become "a template" for other districts that are also running out of money.

    Wythe Keever, spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, which represents Chester Upland teachers, said: "Abrogating contracts and forcing teachers to work for less pay won't improve the academic quality in Chester Upland. If there are no more resources put into the district, it won't solve the problem."

    Chester Upland school board president Wanda Mann, a Republican who has jousted with Corbett in recent months over who is responsible for the district's problems, said in a statement: "We've had 16 years of [state control] in Chester Upland and have very little to show for it, academically and financially," except for "a mountain of unpaid bills, among a host of other troublesome financial conditions that we inherited."

    Even some of Corbett's staunchest allies had problems with some of the proposal.

    One part would set much lower payments for students from distressed districts to the charter schools they attended or to other school districts that took them in.

    Lawrence Jones, the president of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, said that would "risk putting charter schools into distress to bail out a district that has been mismanaged for decades. You can't save one child by hurting another." He added: "It would not be enough to give students an adequate education. This is literally robbing Peter to pay Paul."

    Eller said the Education Department estimates that the payment for every Chester Upland student would be $10,000, a figure much higher than the one Dinniman came up with.

    The three-person board that would govern the district, Eller said, would have one member appointed by the secretary of education and two by a Delaware County Court judge.

    — Dan Hardy, John Rawlings, et al
    Philadelphia Inquirer, ABC, et al




    This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of education issues vital to a democracy. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information click here. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.