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Charter school pushes for takeover of Chester Upland’s elementary schools

If the school's petition is granted, the share of Chester Upland students enrolled in charters — already one of the nation’s largest — could grow to roughly 80 percent.

Moving quietly, pupils walk with their fingers to their lips at Chester Community Charter. The school, which already enrolls most of Chester Upland's elementary students, has filed a petition with the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas that could result in it taking over the rest of the district's primary schools.
Moving quietly, pupils walk with their fingers to their lips at Chester Community Charter. The school, which already enrolls most of Chester Upland's elementary students, has filed a petition with the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas that could result in it taking over the rest of the district's primary schools.Read moreCLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer

Pennsylvania’s largest brick-and-mortar charter school, which already enrolls 60% of the Chester Upland School District’s elementary students, has moved to let charters take over the fiscally distressed district’s primary schools.

Chester Community Charter School has asked Delaware County Court to order the district and state to issue requests for proposals for charters to educate Chester Upland’s prekindergarten through eighth grade students. The charter did not ask that it be the only operator considered, but its management company said it is positioned to expand if the court moves ahead with the plan.

Charters have increased their presence and faced heightened controversy in school districts nationwide. More than half of Chester Upland’s approximately 7,000 public school students attend charters, one of the largest such shares nationally. If the petition is granted, that number could grow to about 80%. Without elementary students, the district’s enrollment would drop from about 3,000 to 1,400. Chester High School would not be affected.

It would also send millions of more tax dollars to charters and leave the Chester Upland district with less control and money, a prospect that district teachers say will further erode their mission and ranks.

Chester Upland Education Association members staff six schools. Its teachers are “worried that expanding charter schools in the district will drain even more money from our neighborhood schools," said Dariah Jackson, a life skills teacher at Stetser Elementary and vice president of the union. “That’s just not good for our community’s children.”

Chester Community’s petition is scheduled for a hearing Dec. 4. The school wants its request to be considered as part of a financial recovery plan for the district, which has been overseen by a court-appointed receiver for nearly seven years.

That position is now vacant. After being reappointed by the court in July to a three-year term, receiver Peter Barsz submitted his resignation last month, citing a need to focus on his growing accounting firm. His last day was Monday.

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

The Pennsylvania Department of Education has asked the court to appoint Gregory Thornton, a former Chester Upland superintendent, as an interim receiver. That request is also expected to be heard Dec. 4.

Chester Upland officials said Barsz’s resignation wouldn’t affect the recovery plan, which a consultant is expected to deliver next month. Whether that plan will include further expansion of charter schools “has not been finalized,” said Juan Baughn, Chester Upland’s superintendent. But, he said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if that wasn’t one of the considerations."

In asking the court to extend the receivership in May, lawyers for the Education Department said Chester Upland was facing a $6 million budget deficit this year. The district spent $127 million in 2017-18.

“We don’t have enough money," Baughn said.

Part of the problem is a state appeals court ruling that overturned a 2015 order forcing cyber charter schools to accept reduced payments from Chester Upland for special education students, as the district’s brick-and-mortar charters had agreed to do.

Barsz called that ruling, which was retroactive to 2015, “a serious financial setback" that cost the district about $4 million, and could cost it $1 million annually going forward.

More than 4,300 students in kindergarten through eighth grade are already enrolled in Chester Community Charter, which is managed by CSMI. The for-profit education management company was founded by Vahan Gureghian, a Gladwyne lawyer and major Republican donor. It manages another charter school in Atlantic City that was placed on probation by the New Jersey Department of Education this year. A third charter in Camden was previously closed due to poor academic performance.

Two years ago, Barsz granted Chester Community Charter a five-year extension after just one year into its charter agreement. The deal allowed it to operate through 2026 — an unprecedented charter term in Pennsylvania. At the time, Barsz said the deal would protect Chester High, because CSMI agreed not to open a high school in Chester.

In an email to The Inquirer, Barsz declined to take a position on Chester Community Charter’s latest petition, which was filed Nov. 5.

How lucrative the takeover could be for charters in the district is unclear. CSMI does not disclose what it charges the charter schools it manages. A spokesperson for the company directed questions about the fees to Chester Community Charter, where an administrator did not return a message Monday.

The Inquirer has previously reported that state records showed CSMI collected nearly $17 million in taxpayer funds in 2014-15, receiving $5,787 for each of the charter school’s 2,911 students.

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

The CSMI spokesperson, Max Tribble, said the school is “totally financially stable," while the receivership has “failed to accomplish any financial stability" for the Chester Upland district.

Based on the Commonwealth Court ruling reversing Chester Upland’s reduced payments to cyber charters, Tribble said, the district owes Chester Community Charter $54 million. He also said the district has $30 million in “urgent capital needs."

Asked how Chester Community Charter would be able to address those issues, Tribble said the school would outline its plan if the court moves forward and orders proposals to be solicited.

“We feel that it’s time to look at some other solution,” Tribble said. “Our goal is to make the district stable."

A spokesman for the Department of Education declined to comment on the petition.

Anthony Johnson, the Chester Upland school board president, said the petition was for the court to decide. In an interview, he said his primary concern wasn’t charters taking over the district’s elementary schools, but inadequate funding from the state.

“Ask them what they have done for 25 years in Chester Upland,” he said.