The school board in Delaware County's Chester Upland School District passed a $99 million tentative budget Tuesday that leaves it with a $9 million gap between revenues and spending that it has to close by June 30.
The budget woes are only the latest problems for the beleaguered district, which last fall had to lay off about 40 percent of its teaching staff and eliminate arts and music instruction and honors classes. The district almost ran out of money in January; it managed to stay open but ran up millions in debt in the process.
School board members and administrators in the 3,375-student district did not say much at a Chester High meeting Tuesday about how they plan to bridge the budget gap. And what on paper is a $9 million deficit may actually amount to $10 million, since the budget includes $1 million in revenues for the sale of two closed buildings and the district does not have any bids that would bring in anything like that amount, officials said.
"This is still a work in progress," School Board President Wanda Mann told an audience of about 75. Acting Superintendent Tony Watson was more blunt: "Honestly, we don't know how" the budget will be balanced, he said. "It will take a lot of work."
The budget includes a 2.7 percent tax increase, the first hike in many years. But Chester Upland officials have calculated that the district's tax base is so thin and the number of delinquencies so high — about 30 percent — that the increase will bring in only a few hundred thousand dollars. In recent years, about 80 percent of Chester Upland's budget has come from state and federal funding. Chester's school taxes are already the highest in Delaware County.
The budget plan passed Tuesday does not provide for the payment of an estimated $30 million the district owes to charter schools and a host of vendors, including health insurance and utility providers, from this school year. Chester Upland, which ran short of money because of past debts, state budget cuts, and money owed to charter schools, is seeking additional state funding to make up the deficit, but state Education Department officials have said the district is largely on its own.
Despite its financial woes, the district plans to bring back full-day kindergarten, which it cut last fall, because it has been losing students to charters that provide it. Expanding to full-day kindergarten will cost about $350,000 more than if it remained half-day.
There are no plans to close any buildings, Mann said, leaving in place the Chester Upland School of the Arts, a successful elementary school arts magnet program, and two magnet high school programs, Allied Health and Science and Discovery.
Teachers' salaries, which are set by union contract, are slated to go up about 2.5 percent next year, said Thomas Persing, acting assistant superintendent. Health care will go up more than 4 percent, payments to the state school employees' pension plan will rise about 50 percent, and bond debt payments will increase by half a million dollars. The district has no control over any of those increases, Persing said.
The district estimates that payments to charter schools for its students enrolled in them will consume about 40 percent of next year's budget. Almost half of Chester Upland's students attend charters.
One thing that could change by June 30 is the amount of state funding the district receives. Chester Upland is calculating that it would lose about $1 million from the proposed elimination in 2012-13 of a state program called the Accountability Block Grant. But there is talk in the legislature about restoring part of that funding and setting up a new fund for distressed school districts.
The district is also in the running for a federal School Improvement Grant that could bring in several million dollars.
But Chester Upland faces a long, uphill battle before it can get anywhere near where it wants to be, board member Bettie McClairen said. "The community is going to have to come together," she told the audience. "We want a decent education. … We can't just sit quietly and go into the night."