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Judge denies petition to convert Chester Upland schools to charters, says charter expansion may be an option

Expanding charter schools could still be part of a financial recovery plan for the fiscally distressed school district, which has been in receivership for seven years.

Educators, parents, and community members rally Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019 in support of Chester Upland public schools the night before a court hearing on one charter school's petition to solicit proposals from charters to take over all of Chester Upland's preK-8 schools.
Educators, parents, and community members rally Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019 in support of Chester Upland public schools the night before a court hearing on one charter school's petition to solicit proposals from charters to take over all of Chester Upland's preK-8 schools.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

A Delaware County judge on Wednesday denied a request that could have allowed nearly all Chester Upland School District schools to be converted to charters.

But Judge Barry Dozor said he would consider further expansion of charter schools to stabilize the fiscally distressed district, which has been controlled by a court-ordered receiver for seven years.

Chester Community Charter School’s petition to let charter operators submit proposals to take over district schools is “premature,” Dozor said at the end of the hearing. A new financial recovery plan for the district is being prepared, and Dozor said he would schedule hearings in February or March on it.

Chester Community — the state’s largest brick-and-mortar charter, which enrolls more than half of Chester Upland’s 7,000 students — had argued that the court should solicit proposals to convert Chester Upland’s remaining pre-K-8 schools to charters.

“Why would an entity or an institution in this kind of continuous financial distress be averse to hearing new ideas?” said Francis Catania, a lawyer for Chester Community. Lawyers for the Chester Upland school board said it supported the petition.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education, which opposed the move, contended the charter was trying to circumvent the authority of the receiver and could gain an unfair advantage if its petition were approved.

For “a potential bidder to be drawing the bid specs … that’s the fox guarding the henhouse,” said James Flandreau, a lawyer for the department.

If the district’s elementary and middle schools were converted to charters, the percentage of students in charters would grow to about 80%, while the district’s enrollment would fall from 3,000 to 1,400.

Some of the proposal’s opponents argued against Chester Community in particular taking over district schools because of its performance and other issues.

Managed by CSMI, a for-profit company founded by lawyer and GOP donor Vahan Gureghian, the charter has been growing. Of its more than 4,000 students, about 1,500 are from Philadelphia, said Samuel Silver, a lawyer for the Philadelphia School District.

» READ MORE: How Chester Community Charter School got a 9-year deal

The district was among several entities that sought to intervene in the case Wednesday, contending it has a financial interest in the potential expansion of Chester Community, since it pays the charter based on enrollment — $15.6 million last year as well as $1.5 million for transportation, according to Philadelphia’s school board.

The Education Law Center and Public Interest Law Center also filed a petition with the court on behalf of several Chester Upland district parents, saying the charter’s proposal would circumvent community input and noting that its test scores were worse than those of the district schools.

The unions representing Chester Upland teachers and staff also asked to join the case, saying their members could be furloughed or terminated.

Dozor denied the requests to intervene, based on his decision to deny Chester Community Charter’s petition.

The judge likened the petition to “a shot from a cannon over a ship that woke us all up.”

» READ MORE: Judge, state question quick renewal for Chester charter school

Other charter schools enrolling Chester students took no position on the proposal.

In addition to the throng of lawyers, community members filled the courtroom Wednesday, including some wearing T-shirts that read “Local Control Is Our Goal.”

On Tuesday, the unions rallied outside Chester High School, hoisting signs that read “Don’t Close Our Schools” and “Choice Matters” — saying students in the district shouldn’t be required to attend charters. (Chester High School would not be affected by the proposal.)

“Where will we be without public education?” Chester Upland Education Association president John Shelton asked the crowd. “Where are these students going to go when the charter schools close their doors and move on?” He said the “solution isn’t more charter schools, but instead, adequate funding.”

The district’s financial recovery plan is due Dec. 19. The plan is being prepared by Jack Pund, a consultant hired by former receiver Peter Barsz, who resigned in November.

Dozor, who previously approved former Chester Upland Superintendent Gregory Thornton as temporary receiver, on Wednesday granted the Education Department’s request to have Thornton continue in that role through March.

He also ordered that Thornton and the state consider urgent repairs in the district after learning that students at the district’s STEM Showalter School had to be dismissed early this week due to frigid building temperatures.

“The solutions that have been proffered in the past simply don’t work,” said Catania, Chester Community’s lawyer.

Dozor said new solutions were needed. “It’s going to be suggested to me that charter schools is the way to go,” he said. "Not that I accept that, but I can hear that shouting already.”