The Chester Upland School District, hammered by state budget cuts and the loss of students to charter schools, is running out of money and may not be able to meet its payroll as early as next month.
That's despite starting the school year with 35 percent of the teachers and half of the support staff it had in June.
"If we are not able to meet our payroll, it calls into question the ability of the district to continue offering an education to students," said district spokesman Joel Avery. "We don't know what the staff will do if they are not paid. The situation is extremely urgent."
As a result, School Board President Wanda Mann will appeal to Gov. Corbett for help, Avery said.
Teachers and other staff in the Delaware County district are "panicking about whether they will have a paycheck after December," he added.
Chester Upland administrators and school board members have been talking with the state Education Department about the shortfall, Avery said, but "there has been a shortage of remedies up to this point . . . and the clock is ticking."
Education Department spokesman Tim Eller said the department has been working with the district for months. Asked if the state would kick in any money, he said, "I don't even want to guess at this point."
Avery said that the district has been in bad financial shape for years and "at some point this was bound to happen." The district was under state control because of its financial and academic woes from 1994 to July 2010.
Chester Upland has 3,658 students in its regular schools and 3,025 or so at the Chester Community Charter School, the state's largest charter, and the much smaller Widener Partnership Charter.
Part of the district's long-term financial problems come from its losing many children to the charters. More than half its students in kindergarten to eighth grade now attend them.
Chester Upland is paying the charter schools an estimated $39.4 million this year for educating its students; that's about 40 percent of the budget. The money is paid directly to the schools by the state, drawing on allocations to the district, Avery said.
District test scores are among the worst in Pennsylvania. Scores at the charters are higher.
Chester Upland was slammed this June by state funding cuts that included the loss of $11 million in reimbursements for its payments to charter schools.
Some funding in other areas was added but the district ended up losing about 11 percent of its state dollars. Largely as a result, the district budget was slashed from $113.2 million to $96 million.
Chester Upland is able to fund only a quarter of its education costs out of local revenues. It gets 67 percent of its funding from the state, the highest percentage in the Philadelphia area and one of the highest in the state. An additional 8 percent comes from the federal government.
Chester City has by far the highest school tax rate in Delaware County. The other two municipalities in the district, Upland and Chester Township, are taxed at a lower rate.
The school board has not raised local taxes for the last several years, saying that when it did in the past, that only caused more flight from the city and more tax delinquency, and thus raised little new money.
Chester Upland's student poverty rate is 77 percent, one of the highest in the state.
State Rep. Thaddeus Kirkland (D., Delaware), who represents Chester, said the loss of the state funds was so sizable that a financial crisis was inevitable. "You can't cut your way out of that big a cut," he said, "and you can't lay off your way out of it - it's impossible." He called for Corbett to restore the cuts.
Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi also represents the district; he was mayor of Chester in the 1990s. He did not return a call.
Teachers union president Gloria Zoranski also did not return a phone call.
Charlie Warren, a longtime community activist and a newly elected Democratic school board member, said that "it's the state's responsibility to restore the money that Corbett cut from us. . . . If he would just put the money back that we lost, we wouldn't have this problem right now."
Asked if he thought that would happen, he said that if Mann, part of the Republican majority on the board, "can get the money back, great, but I don't see that happening."
He added: "I'm an optimist. I believe we will be able to work something out, but where we're going to get the money right now, I don't know."