The Chester Upland School District, which came within days of running out of money earlier this year, will be back in federal court Wednesday, asking for assurances that it will have enough money to educate 700 special-education students next year.
As things stand now, according to the district, it will have only about $22 million to educate its 3,500 students. That's tens of millions less than it says it needs to keep the schools open and meet special-education expenses.
The district has a suit pending in Commonwealth Court to address its overall spending needs. The federal courts have jurisdiction over special-education issues, so the district is pressing those claims before U.S. District Judge Michael Baylson.
Chester Upland is not seeking a specific amount of money, only that there be enough to ensure a "free and appropriate public education" for Chester Upland special-needs students. If the judge grants that request, the exact amount would then be determined.
State officials say that Chester Upland created its own problems through misspending and poor planning and that it is up to the district to find a way out.
State lawyers are expected to argue Wednesday that any discussion of how much special-education funding the district would need is premature, since the state and the district have not yet passed budgets for next year.
The state's lawyers have also argued that the federal courts lack authority to order monetary relief even if an amount could be determined.
Chester Upland filed suit in January as it was about to run out of money because of state funding cuts, required payments to charter schools, and debts it owed from previous years.
Baylson ordered the state to provide $3.2 million and helped broker additional funding — enough to keep the schools open. Millions in Chester Upland debts were left unpaid, however, making the situation next fall precarious. The district may end up carrying over as much as $28 million from this school year — money owed to charter schools, vendors, and special-education providers.
That, combined with about $34 million in projected payments to charter schools next school year and $6 million in bond payments, would leave district educators with only $22 million. Chester Upland's current budget is $96 million; officials have said they need from $10 million to $12 million more to provide an adequate education next year. The district, one of the poorest in Pennsylvania, gets more than 70 percent of its funding from the state.
Baylson ruled in March that the bulk of Chester Upland's funding requests should be resolved in state court. He kept jurisdiction over special-education issues involving federal IDEA — Individuals With Disabilities Education Act — legislation.
The district is arguing that Pennsylvania's special-education law violates the federal IDEA statute in the context of Chester Upland's situation, since it funds special-education programs using the assumption that 16 percent of a district's students have special needs. In Chester Upland, the actual figure is more than 20 percent.
Chester Upland gets about $5 million in special-education funding from the state, and an additional $1.5 million from the federal government, yet spends about $19 million on specials-needs services, said Michael Churchill of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, which represents parents and students in the district.