Sara Ferguson grew up in Chester, and, like her mother, aunt, and grandfather, chose to be a teacher there. For 21 years, she has taught at Columbus Elementary School, and often it seems each year is worse than the last.

Program cuts, staff furloughs, and claims of mismanagement are routine for the Chester Upland School District. Nearly half its 6,625 students have flocked to charter schools, many during the time the state ran the district. No superintendent lasts more than a few years; no turnaround plan ever takes root.

Ferguson, 48, sees teachers as the only vestige of stability. But even they cannot stem the tide, as class sizes swell to more than 40, and money dwindles for the most basic supplies.

"Things never got better for the children," she said.

Her words sounded like a eulogy, which might not be a stretch. After decades on the brink - and as a petri dish for state control, privatization, and charter schools - Chester Upland seems to be barreling toward a meltdown. Its fate could ripple statewide.

Last week, a federal judge told the state to give the district a $3.2 million advance, enough to cover payroll and bills for a month. U.S. District Judge Michael M. Baylson's order delayed, but did not defuse, the school system's crisis. The shortfall, officials say, could hit $20 million by June.

Another hearing is scheduled for Friday.

Gov. Corbett agreed to abide by the judge's order, but he also signaled that the Delaware County district - which sued for the money - could become a battleground in a broader war.

Corbett has made the funding and management of public schools a signature issue, and he has pushed legislation to establish state-appointed control boards with power to cancel teacher contracts, convert schools into charters, and send students to other districts. The governor also will not rule out closing Chester Upland.

Saying that students would be able to finish the school year, Corbett and Sen. Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Del.) said "the present structure is simply unsustainable" in a statement Friday.

The night before, about 75 people packed a school board meeting in Chester, vowing to save their schools. "This didn't happen in one year," said Wanda Mann, the school board president. "I think we've had 13 superintendents and I don't know how many control boards and one empowerment board - and the problems still exist, educationally and financially."

There is no consensus on how the district got to its current state, or how it could survive, according to interviews with teachers, administrators, state officials, and residents.

Some say Chester Upland has been unfairly used as a political football and education lab since at least 1994, when the state took control. Others blame incompetent administrators and a dearth of local leadership. Still more cite parents who do not understand the system or care enough about good-quality education for their children.

The latest funding crisis is nothing new. In 1994, 1997, 2002, and 2005, Chester Upland officials said they that were deep in debt or that they could not make payroll. The current school directors say the last state control board left them $10 million in debt. Then Corbett imposed his deep cuts in state aid.

Hundreds of staffers lost jobs; dozens of activities were slashed. All honors courses were cut, along with most language, art, and music offerings. None of that has been enough.

Most agree the district may have reached a tipping point.

"The only other alternative [to more state funding] is massive cuts," said Jay Himes, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials. "And if they are that massive, can they provide a quality education?"

No one disputes the sobering numbers. Chester Upland's graduation rate last year was 51 percent. Its test scores regularly rank near or at the bottom of Pennsylvania's 500 school systems. In the last five years, enrollment declined one fifth, while the budget swelled from $85 million to $113 million last school year. State and federal aid pays for most of it, because there is so little money in Chester.

More than a third of the city's population lives below the poverty line. Median household income, at $24,000, is half the statewide average. Almost a third of district property owners do not pay their tax bills - the 29 percent delinquency rate is six times higher than in most suburban districts.

Colleen Wellstein, a Chester Upland elementary teacher for 12 years, said the youngest pupils come to school and speak of going to college, being doctors or lawyers. Too often, those dreams erode quickly, she said, maybe as the children start seeing the hurdles in their lives and community.

Wellstein said she had become accustomed to her third graders at the Chester Upland School of the Arts talking about absent parents or relatives shot or locked up in jail. "They do see a huge amount of the negative," she said.

With an infusion of funding from the nonprofit Chester Fund for Education and the Arts, her school has been spared some pain. Wellstein's class size this year is 18, and the building still offers a music and art program.

A 54-year-old mother of five, Wellstein has been furloughed three times in six years, including last summer. She expects one more layoff and thinks this one will be permanent. One reason: the Chester Fund has applied to start a charter school, which could drain yet more children from the public schools.

About 45 percent of Chester Upland students attend charters. Most go to the K-8 Chester Community Charter School, the state's largest, which academically outperforms the district schools.

The explosion of charters was one of the efforts that was supposed to improve, not destroy, the district.

Another was the decision in 2001 to hire Edison Schools to run eight of its nine schools, one of the nation's largest privatization experiments.

Within four years, Edison was gone. Charles Gray, a control board member at the time, said he thought that Edison had made strides but that it lost interest in Chester Upland when it got a contract to manage Philadelphia schools.

A lack of consistency seems to doom the district, said Gray, who was ousted in a 2003 housecleaning by the state education secretary.

Talented administrators and superintendents too often make Chester a pit stop, Gray said. Elected officials and bureaucrats tussle over control, plunking down new people and ideas every few years. Nothing improves.

"It's not necessarily money; I don't think you could spend your way out of that place," said Gray, a retired county employee and Chester resident.

Ed Mitchell, president of the Upland Borough Council and a former school board member, blames what he says is inept management inside the district and a lack of political fortitude outside it.

He said elected officials would face a backlash if they dissolved the school district. Chester Upland is largely black, and the districts surrounding it are largely white and already facing their own budget woes, Mitchell noted.

"Our kids are being held captive by a zip code," he said.

Donna Cooper, former policy and planning secretary for Gov. Ed Rendell, said partisan politics and impatience was "100 percent" to blame for the district's inability to turn around. She said Chester Upland did not just need a plan - it needed five or six years to let a plan work.

"In education, there's not a silver bullet. It's a packet of changes that turns a school district around," Cooper said. "To revive this district requires motivating the hearts and minds of every parent, every teacher, every administrator."

Thomas Persing, a retired superintendent who helped run the district from 1998 to 2003 and returned in November as an assistant superintendent, said the district was "looking for leadership - and all we are getting is stalemate."

He predicted that even after paying off its $20 million deficit, Chester Upland would need an extra $10 million to $12 million next year to turn the corner.

Himes, of the business managers' association, said such hopes were not realistic.

"Districts like Chester Upland can only ask for more state aid, and I don't see that in the cards," he said. "I don't know what the solution is. I don't know where those kids are going to go."

Contact staff writer Dan Hardy at 215-854-2612,, or @DanInq on Twitter.