A federal court order earlier this month sending money to the Chester Upland School District to keep it solvent threatens to put the Chester Community Charter School, home to about 2,750 Chester Upland students, in jeopardy, charter officials say.
The charter school, Pennsylvania's largest, is already owed close to $7 million by Chester Upland, and the court order could put on hold an additional $15 million it is scheduled to get before the end of the year.
"If those payments are not forthcoming, the school is in danger of closing," said A. Bruce Crawley, a charter school spokesman.
Chester Community's total budget for the school year is about $40 million, school officials said. Most of its funding comes from the Chester Upland district, which says it cannot make any payments to the charter because it needs all the money it has and more to pay its own employees and other school-related costs.
By state law, every school district must pay for the education of its students in charter schools, using a formula related to the cost of providing an education to students in its own schools.
But as early as April 2011, the Chester Upland district, saying it was running short of money because of revenue shortfalls and deficits carried over from previous years, stopped sending money to Chester Community Charter.
The state Department of Education, citing state law, started withholding Chester Upland's state subsidies and sending them to Chester Community Charter to pay off the amount the district owed.
Some of that subsidy was also taken by the state to repay a loan it had made to the district; as a result, the charter says it is owed $6.9 million from Chester Upland.
U.S. District Judge Michael Baylson ordered the state to send the Chester Upland District $3.2 million. Baylson also told the state to stop holding back Chester Upland subsidies until he ruled otherwise.
Baylson's order sending state subsidies to the district instead of Chester Community Charter could cut off money to the charter.
The charter school has filed a motion with Baylson for an emergency reconsideration of his order; a hearing is scheduled for Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the district and the charter school, in a rare show of unity, teamed up last week to say they had identified millions in state budget funds they said were not committed to any project or district and could be used to tide both of them over until the end of June.
Chester Community Charter chief executive officer David Clark said at a news conference Friday that they were sending the "message that the City of Chester and its parents and educators are united as one to make sure that we deliver and retain what is best for our children's futures."
In a Commonwealth Court legal filing Monday, the Education Department said the state funds named by the district and charter either do not exist or have been earmarked by state guidelines for other purposes.
Chester Community Charter parents at the news conference said they were worried and angry about possible disruptions for their children. "No matter what the politics, the children are what's important," said Kayla Sudler, who has two children at the school. "They should allow the funds to come, to let them get their education."
When asked whether the charter school was in jeopardy, Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware), who represents Chester, said Friday that he believed money for all the schools would be found, though he could not say where it would come from.
"The charter schools are part of the public school system in this community," he said. "I understood the governor's commitment [to keep the schools open this year] to be not just to the district but to all the children" there.