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Charter takeover rejected in Chester Upland — for now

A takeover apparently would have marked the first time in Pennsylvania that district schools would be outsourced to charters as part of a court-ordered financial recovery plan.

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

The receiver who oversees the Chester Upland School District has rejected three bids by charter operators seeking to take over its schools — a prospect that was pitched as a solution to the struggling district’s financial woes, but opposed by community members who feared the dismantling of their school system.

After a months-long review process conducted mostly in private, Juan Baughn announced Tuesday night that he had decided against accepting any of the charter proposals.

The district, and others outside it, had been waiting for months to see if the receiver would recommend a takeover, which apparently would have marked the first time in Pennsylvania that district schools would be outsourced to charters — which are publicly funded but independently run — as part of a court-ordered financial recovery plan.

A Delaware County judge will have the final say in whether schools should be handed over as part of a recovery plan for the district. A hearing is planned for July 9.

Community members who had been worrying about turning over the schools voiced relief after Tuesday’s announcement.

“I am very grateful. It was the right thing to do. The presentations by the charters left you no choice but to say no,” said A. Jean Arnold, a longtime Chester activist who had criticized the pitches from the charters as lacking adequate detail.

“To have done otherwise would have utterly destroyed our district,” Arnold said.

Jackie Browne, president of the Chester Upland Education Support Professionals Association, the union for district support staff, said Baughn’s recommendation would “preserve a choice for parents who want to send their kids to Chester Upland’s neighborhood public schools.”

“For decades, Chester Upland’s public schools have served the children of this community with pride, and this decision maintains that opportunity for future generations,” she said.

Charter operators — including Chester Community Charter, the state’s largest brick-and-mortar charter, which initiated the takeover conversation — could challenge Baughn’s decision. A spokesperson for Chester Community Charter declined to comment Wednesday.

Maura McInerney, legal director for the Education Law Center, which represented district parents concerned about a takeover, said it would be difficult for a charter to contest the decision.

“It certainly settles the issue for now, and we were very pleased ... that the receiver listened to community members and parents who pushed for transparency and stood up in opposition,” McInerney said. But she noted that Chester Upland wasn’t alone in its funding woes.

“The prospect of abrupt charter school takeovers like this will continue unless the state reforms our school funding system to adequately support all our schools and children,” she said.

» READ MORE: Pa.’s poorest school districts will get more money next year. Public education advocates say the budget still falls short.

An infusion of federal dollars coming into Chester Upland helped Baughn reach a decision. In an interview Wednesday, he said the $27 million in federal aid — followed by a state budget that sends added money to Pennsylvania’s poorest districts — could help the district upgrade its aging school buildings, without involving a charter operator.

“I wasn’t prepared to sell off any more of the schools’ property,” Baughn said. “If the charters moved out, what happens to those buildings and those students, and where do we house them?”

Baughn was referring to a proposal by Chester Community Charter, which already enrolls more than half of Chester Upland’s 7,000 public school students. The charter had sought to buy two of Chester Upland’s elementary schools, pledging to save the district millions while promising parents state-of-the-art facilities.

The two other bidders — Global Leadership Academy, which operates two Philadelphia charters, and Friendship Education Foundation, a Washington, D.C., company that runs a charter network — had each proposed taking over two schools, but not buying the buildings. Baughn said he felt Chester Upland could match those two proposals “if we had the right resources and people in place.”

Baughn said he had not informed the charters of his decision prior to Tuesday’s meeting and did not know if they would challenge it in court.

Joe Harris, CEO of Friendship Education Foundation, said the company did not plan to challenge the decision, but “Friendship remains committed to Chester Upland. If the opportunity presents itself in the future, we would like to be considered.”

Naomi Johnson Booker, executive director of Global Leadership Academy, said, “We are disappointed because the children will continue to suffer.”

Both organizations became involved after the court ordered the district to solicit proposals from charters as part of its latest financial recovery plan, a process managed by a revolving door of receivers during its near-decade of court supervision.

Chester Community Charter proposed that step, petitioning the court in 2019 to consider a takeover of the district’s elementary schools as a possible financial solution.

» READ MORE: Two-plus hours on a school bus: How a Chester charter taps Philly kids to grow

At a community meeting in May, the charter’s CEO, David Clark, told parents and residents the charter would build brand-new facilities, take less money from the district than it was entitled to under state law, and pay teachers the same rate as those in the district, who are unionized. (The vast majority of charter staffs are nonunion.)

Parents asked what they would do if they didn’t want to send their children to the charters — a right provided by Pennsylvania law — and questioned why Chester Community had distributed brochures around the community advertising new buildings before a decision was made.

“We do want public support,” Clark said, adding that “this deal is far, far from settled.”

Baughn, who is stepping down as receiver in August, said Wednesday that “every group I spoke with” opposed the proposals.

“Up until the last minute, I guess people were sitting out there thinking I was going to charterize the district,” Baughn said. But he said he carefully reviewed the proposals and listened to community members.

“They didn’t think I was listening. I heard them,” he said.