The tension between traditional public schools and the charter schools they fund has spurred debate for years, in Pennsylvania and nationally.

In one Chester County community, the situation has escalated to what school district leaders say is a battle for survival.

The Coatesville Area School District has been urging parents to contact state lawmakers and press for changes to Pennsylvania’s charter funding rules that it says are draining the district of critical dollars.

At the Collegium and Avon Grove charter schools — which draw students from various districts and serve more than 2,500 Coatesville students, close to half of the district’s enrollment — leaders have also been rallying families, accusing the district of circulating misinformation.

The sides disagree on how much Coatesville, one of the poorer districts in affluent Chester County, owed the charters in the last school year. But the debate stretches beyond a single budget, as the district grapples with how to reverse a prolonged exodus of students to charters while facing a gaping budget hole in the year ahead.

“Plainly put, we are in a fight for our lives,” interim Superintendent Richard Dunlap said in a recent letter to staff, parents, and taxpayers.

At a school board meeting Tuesday, Dunlap told community members the $14 million deficit in its $192 million budget could require staff reductions of 10% to 15%.

A big part of the problem, he said, is “the charter school crisis.” School districts are required to pay charter schools based on enrollment. As Coatesville students continue to flock to Collegium, Avon Grove, and other charters — from 1,700 students in 2014-15 to more than 3,000 this year — the district’s payments to charters have grown from $21 million to $54 million.

Next year, the district is projecting charter enrollment will continue to grow, pushing payments over $59 million. Special-education costs have also been mounting, a challenge for districts across Pennsylvania.

The state limits the percentage by which school districts can raise taxes in a given year. Even if the district adopts the highest permitted tax hike, the new revenue wouldn’t cover the expected increase in charter payments, let alone other costs, district officials said.

The district’s budget picture worsened late last year after the state Education Department directed $3.8 million in funding for Coatesville to charter schools that argued the district had underpaid them.

The charters, Collegium and Avon Grove, said the district had underbudgeted for special education in the last school year by $10 million, and as a result, underpaid the charters.

Marita Barber, Collegium’s CEO, said in a statement that Coatesville’s “gross underbudgeting had a significant impact on Collegium Charter School’s students."

The district says the charter payments should be based on what the district budgeted, not what it ultimately spent. It took the charters to court, but an appellate judge said the matter was the Education Department’s to decide. District officials say they have appealed to the department, but no hearing has been scheduled.

The dispute over those payments doesn’t change the broader picture for the Coatesville district, which has been losing a growing share of students to charters.

Over the last decade, Coatesville’s enrollment has dropped more than 16% to 5,700, according to state data. Meanwhile, charters enrolling Coatesville students have grown. Collegium, in particular, grew by nearly 130% over the same period and was the second-largest brick-and-mortar charter in Pennsylvania last year with nearly 3,000 students. About 2,100 of its students are from Coatesville.

At Avon Grove, “I have a waiting list of hundreds of Coatesville kids,” said CEO Kristen Bishop. “The kids started leaving a long time ago. You had leadership that wasn’t facing the actual reality of what was happening.” She questioned the district’s fiscal management.

Avon Grove’s fifth graders outperformed their peers at Collegium and at Coatesville Area School District’s five elementaries in reading and math on the 2019 Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) test. Avon Grove had about 72% of students testing proficient or advanced in reading, and about 54% in math.

Comparable results were mixed at Collegium and the district’s five elementaries. About 47% of Collegium’s fifth graders were proficient or advanced in reading, similar to or higher than the results at most district schools. In math, however, fifth graders at most district schools scored about the same as or better than their peers at Collegium, where about 22% were proficient or advanced. Collegium and Avon Grove enroll students from multiple school districts in addition to Coatesville.

Dunlap, who took over as interim superintendent this fall, acknowledged that parents have expressed “a lack of confidence” in the district. He said that he has been holding focus groups with families and that the district needs to improve its special-education services, academic supports, and facilities.

It will be presenting a plan to do so later this month, he said — although improvements will require funding.

Charter parents who addressed Dunlap and the board Tuesday maintained it was their right to choose a school that would best serve their children. They objected to the district’s characterization of the charters as a budget drain, and accused the district of bullying them for exercising choice.

“If anyone’s being drained here, it’s the taxpayer,” said Rich Franck, whose daughter graduated from Collegium and whose son currently attends the charter. “This money is not yours."

Under state law, school districts pay charters based on what the districts spend per student. Not all district costs are included in the calculation — like transportation, which districts must provide all students, if they provide it to those attending their schools. Charters also don’t get a cut of what districts spend on facilities.

Yet school districts say losing students to charters still costs them money, because they can’t fully cut costs to account for the drop in students. If a district loses 10 students to a charter, for instance, it can’t necessarily reduce staff, because enrollment drops may be spread out among grade levels.

District parents said they weren’t objecting to school choice but said the charter funding mechanisms were problematic.

“There’s room in our system for different kinds of schools, but I think we need to take care of our public schools first,” said Beth Brindle, a parent of three Coatesville district students.

Lyryn Yacoe, a district parent who helps run a Coatesville community blog, urged district leaders to unite families, instead of referring to a charter “crisis.”

“It is dire for us, but they don’t see it that way right now," she said of charter parents.