A Delaware County judge has directed the struggling Chester Upland School District to move forward with proposals to outsource the management of its schools — a step that could lead to the entire district being turned over to charter operators.
The order, issued Thursday by Judge Barry Dozor, opened the door to what could be one of the widest expansions in Pennsylvania of charter schools, which are independently run but publicly funded.
It also drew protests from advocates of traditional public education, who said such a step would further deplete district resources and lacked adequate accountability measures.
“The last thing that students in the Chester Upland School District need is an expansion of charter schools that will drain more resources from their neighborhood public schools,” said Chris Lilienthal, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the union that represents district teachers.
District leaders, meanwhile, sought to calm community fears, describing outsourcing as simply one option, and saying the district would have the final decision — though it has been overseen by a court-appointed receiver for more than seven years.
“The recovery plan includes many possibilities for us to consider as part of the best interest of our students,” said a Facebook message posted Sunday by Superintendent Juan Baughn and School Board President Anthony Johnson. “This is only one of those possibilities.”
Chester Upland, serving one of the region’s poorer communities, has for years faced financial stress. Across the district, more than half of its 7,000 public school students already attend charters, one of the largest percentages of charter enrollments in the state. (About one-third of Philadelphia public school students attend charters.)
But the economic downturn brought on by the coronavirus has piled new stress on districts across the country.
In his order, Dozor wrote that “the gravity of the school district’s severe financial distress, aggravated by the economy, and financial crises caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is both a short-term and a longtime reality and a precursor of a far grimmer school district financial report card.”
Last month, the district’s lawyer filed a plan with the court to consider opening the entire district to charter operators — a broadening of a proposal that first arose in November, when Pennsylvania’s largest brick-and-mortar charter school petitioned the court to allow charter operators to propose to take over the fiscally distressed district’s pre-K to eighth-grade schools.
The school, Chester Community Charter, already enrolls 60% of Chester Upland elementary students. The education management company that runs Chester Community Charter, CSMI, is a for-profit venture founded by Vahan Gureghian, a Gladwyne lawyer and major Republican Party donor.
Max Tribble, a CSMI spokesperson, said Monday he could not comment on whether the company would apply to manage the Chester Upland schools but said CSMI does not manage schools with students beyond eighth grade.
“I do not see that changing,” Tribble said. “We are not proposing to manage the high school.”
He described Dozor’s order as providing “a loose framework for possibly outsourcing various functions and for possibly outsourcing some management services” — echoing the district’s message that the order gave the district the “option of allowing charter schools to take over a particular school, should we find it financially beneficial.”
Darlene Hemerka, s staff attorney for the Public Interest Law Center, which intervened in the case on behalf of several Chester parents, said that while it wasn’t a surprise that the court was moving forward with potential outsourcing, “what we find concerning is it feels like the whole proposal has changed” — from transferring elementary schools to charter management, to the entire district.
In his order, Dozor said the requests for proposals “are intended to address the district’s substantial near-term and long-term challenges, including lagging academic results, attendance and truancy, financial challenges, deferred maintenance, operational administrative, and financial requirements, special education, and the delivery of quality safe education.”
He did not give a time frame for the receiver — soon to be Baughn, the district’s current superintendent — to solicit and evaluate the proposals. But the judge said the district must first produce audits from 2018 and 2019 — information the Pennsylvania Department of Education has argued is critical to assessing the district’s finances.
A spokesperson for the department noted Monday that any change in the management of district schools will require court approval.
Additionally, the order requires a competitive bid process, demonstrated financial savings, “and the demonstration of the ‘continuity of quality educational curriculum’ for all students, as well as alternative quality arrangements for students who choose not to attend the conversion charters,” spokesperson Rick Levis said.
While the order gives the receiver authority to issue the requests for proposals, the Chester Upland school board — which is elected but serves in an advisory capacity — will be able to review any potential outsourcing recommendations, according to the order.
A spokesperson for the current receiver, Gregory Thornton, who will step down this month, said he could not answer questions Monday, including about the time frame for issuing requests for proposals and the current status of the district’s budget.