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Principal Just Tip of Chester-Upland Woes

The sex accusation against high school principal Eboni Wilson that threw the Chester-Upland School District into tumult last week is hardly the worst of its problems.

Finances are in such disarray - the district is $35 million in the hole - that it needed a $4 million state advance to meet a recent payroll. The state can't account for millions and is investigating possible fraud. Officials worry that there may not be enough money to finish the school year.

"Clearly, we have a crisis in Chester-Upland - a fiscal crisis, an educational crisis, a leadership crisis, an accounting crisis," Pennsylvania's education secretary, Francis Barnes, said in an interview. His cabinet meets every Wednesday to discuss the next steps for Chester, the only one of 501 school districts that gets such attention.

It's no wonder that Chester-Upland is on top of Harrisburg's agenda - the state has run the district through a local board for 11 years. And five years ago, also under state direction, the for-profit Edison Schools Inc. was hired to run most of the district's schools.

Last week, Edison announced that it would exit in June, a year early. And despite some gains in test scores, Edison and Chester officials agree that their partnership is an object lesson in how not to privatize a struggling district.

And many community members say they have been left with little to show for what one called an "experiment" that has largely failed the students.

What happens next?

The key is to "make sure the children are the focus - not the administration nor Edison nor any program," said the Rev. Andrew L. Foster 3d of Grace Community United Methodist Church in Chester. Now, "the children are the last on the totem poll."

But the district's future may be limited by its fiscal woes, which include a high tax burden and low tax collection.

It owes $10 million to vendors, including $4.2 million to Edison, which employed the principals, supplied the curriculum, and trained teachers. With $70 million in debt, the district has exhausted its borrowing power. And the district lost millions in federal aid, Barnes said, by not applying for it.

"There are clear indications that the funds put into Chester-Upland didn't go into educating kids in an effective way," Barnes said. Per-pupil spending for the 5,000 students is higher than in the average Pennsylvania district - $12,009 in Chester, vs. $9,309 statewide.

"We're just trying to make it through the school year so that kids can get a full 180 days of instruction," said Shawn Farr, special assistant to Barnes. "How the district will operate the next school year is still an open question."

The state comptroller expects to complete a forensic audit in June, looking deeply into how the district's managers handled its finances. A preliminary audit last fall found that the district lacked controls "designed to protect against malfeasance and fraud."

In 1994, eight years before taking similar action in Philadelphia, the state took over Chester-Upland's finances and installed a three-person Board of Control. In 2000, using a new law, the state declared 12 districts, including Chester-Upland and Philadelphia, academically distressed. That legislation favored the hiring of private managers for schools.

There is a lesson in Chester-Upland's experience for other districts required to restructure for failing to meet academic goals under the No Child Left Behind law.

"School restructuring in Chester-Upland is an example of how NOT to restructure," concluded a report by the Education Commission of the States, a group that helps states shape education policy.

Former Pennsylvania Secretaries of Education Eugene Hickok and Charles Zogby had promoted private management and charter schools to turn around academically failing districts. Chester-Upland was picked to test out these strategies. But Chester-Upland turned out to be anything but a showcase.

One problem, according to the Education Commission of the States, is that while the state pushed the district to privatize, "it didn't follow through to ensure the privatization model negotiated was tenable."

"Caught in the middle of the turmoil are the children and families the restructuring initiative was designed to help," the report said.

Even Edison agrees that this model didn't work. "Working in Chester has always been a challenge," company spokesman Adam Tucker said. "The partnership does not give us ample control to fully implement our program." Under its contract, the company had no power to hire or fire teachers and no control over such things as federal funds or school security.

The opening of charter schools, which educate 28 percent of the district's children, also caused problems. Two of four charter schools have closed, and another ended its high school program. (A fourth, with 1,500 students, has shown some improvement in test scores.)

But the charter schools added to the fiscal disarray by diverting money that otherwise would have gone to the district. And the movement of students back and forth between the failed charters and the regular public schools caused academic problems and a crisis last fall at the high school.

Hickok, who went to Washington to supervise the implementation of No Child Left Behind at the U.S. Department of Education, acknowledged Chester's failures but minimized the larger lessons. "In Chester-Upland, you have a system that just has lost all ability to function," he said Friday. "I can't blame anyone for trying a variety of approaches, including privatization, to shake it up," he said.

Charles Gray, a Chester resident, was on the Board of Control that signed the contract with Edison.

"We thought the best hope at the time was to bring in outside help," Gray said. Edison "presented a very rosy picture, and the fact that they could really turn things around, they came in looking like they had the ability to do that."

State Sen. Dominic Pileggi, former mayor of Chester and a Republican Delaware County power broker, said that what is important now is finding a new superintendent. More than 100 people have applied for the job, Barnes said. With Edison's departure, the district will also have to hire a raft of principals and other administrators.

"It's certainly not an insolvable problem," Pileggi said. The district's "progress and retreat... is frustrating to everyone who is interested in improving opportunities for students in Chester-Upland."

Some Chester High students are reeling from the charges against principal Wilson, who in four months earned wide support among students and faculty. For a short time, the 28-year-old, a child of drug addicts who had risen from gang-infested South Central Los Angeles to earn a doctorate in educational administration, had given them some hope. That was before he was charged Wednesday with four misdemeanor counts for allegedly having consensual sex with a 16-year-old student.

"Since he came to the school, there has been no fighting," said sophomore Maria Lee, 15. "I don't think it's right. I don't think it's fair... . All you were hearing was good stuff about the school, winning the [state championship basketball] game. Now all you hear is this. They're trying to make it bad in all ways." Lee said she had just gone through annual state testing, but "it was hard to think about it with all these things."

Community members are now left to pick up the pieces once again. It's time, several said, for them to take charge.

"The question is, how do you displace those people who have been in power, so a real concerted community effort can be put together to improve the education of children?" said Butch Slaughter, a local filmmaker documenting Chester's travails. "We must be the designers, the architects of our children's future. Right now, everybody keeps getting paid, but nobody's doing nothing. That's intolerable."

Contact staff writer Dale Mezzacappa at

215-854-5112 or dmezzacappa@phillynews.com.

Chester Upland's Troubled History

1993: State investigators find that patronage and poor budgeting practices plague the district.

1994: The state takes control of Chester-Upland, which has a $5.4 million deficit.

1997: A legislative commission proposes that Chester-Upland be closed.

2000: The state declares Chester-Upland among 12 academically distressed districts and targets them for restructuring.

2001: Edison Schools Inc., a for-profit firm, takes over nine of 10 schools for five years.

2002:Dexter Davis is named superintendent.

2002: The outgoing Republican administration pushes through a law ousting the Board of Control and giving five-year terms through 2008 to Michael Gillin, Granville Lash and Adriene Irving.

2004: Chester Charter School closes and Village Charter School ends its high school program, returning hundreds of students to the district.

June 2004: The running deficit exceeds $35 million, including a $10.7 million loss in 2003-04.

Sept. 2004: Chester High opens with overcrowded classes and a lack of books; students walk out in protest; a student melee draws police.

Dec. 2004: Education Secretary Francis Barnes reports a "serious breakdown" in accounting and risk of fiscal mismanagement.

Dec. 2004: Eboni Wilson is named high school principal; Davis resigns as superintendent.

Jan. 2005: Charles Scott is named interim superintendent.

Jan. 2005: Education Commission of the States describes management of the district as "exceedingly dysfunctional," noting that "nearly all schools" have shown improvements in test scores but remain well below satisfactory levels.

March 2005: William Penn Elementary closes, and students are reassigned after the building is found unfit for use; the state advances $4 million for the district's April payroll.

April 2005: Eboni Wilson is arrested; the Control Board seeks Edison's departure a year early and the company agrees; the state awaits a June audit before deciding the next steps.

— Dale Mezzacappa and Connie Langland
Philadelphia Inquirer


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