To win back students who have fled its schools and escape its deep financial crisis, the troubled Chester Upland district will have to embrace a "radical and bold plan" that includes closing three schools, selling several buildings, and overhauling its approach to academics, according to a state report issued Tuesday.
"The choice is stark: reform or become irrelevant and go out of business as a direct education provider," said the report, released by Joseph P. Watkins, the state-appointed Chester Upland School District recovery officer.
If the district fails to meet certain scholastic performance goals, such as federal annual progress targets, by the end for the 2014-15 school year, the plan calls for the schools to be run by external management operations such as charter schools, cyber charters, and education management companies.
"Our children can wait no longer for the chance to learn, to graduate, and to go on to college or a trade," Watkins said in a statement released with the report. "They deserve the opportunity to succeed."
Watkins, who previously ran a pro-voucher and -charter political action committee, was appointed last summer and given broad powers under recently enacted distressed-school legislation to try to turn around the struggling district.
His report highlighted many of the district's problems - over 50 percent of the students score below proficiency on state standardized tests; a $3 million deficit projected to balloon to over $180 million by 2017-18 if no action is taken; and a 5 percent loss of students a year to charter and cyber schools, resulting in lost revenue.
In an interview Friday, Watkins said he did not want to turn the schools into charters or have them managed privately, and Tuesday he said he would like to see local school-board involvement "in the short term and the long term."
But he also said, "We're making students the top priority. This is all about the kids."
"I am very angry and very disappointed," said Chester Upland school board member Charlie Warren. "The state isn't serving this part of the commonwealth with truth and honesty."
Warren accused state officials of trying to remake the district according to its wishes.
"I believe had they given the board - this board coming in - the opportunity, we could have fixed our schools without all this nonsense coming down from the state," he said.
"My biggest fear is, we will lose our public school system and our kids will get pushed out of the charters and they will have no place to go," said State Rep. Thaddeus Kirkland (D., Delaware).
The school board doesn't have much choice. It has 10 days to act on the plan. If approved, the plan will go to state Education Secretary Ron Tomalis for approval or a call for revision.
If the board doesn't approve the plan, the state will seek to have the district put into receivership.
Other low-performing school districts have turned to charter or school management firms to try to improve some of their schools, including Philadelphia's.
In the last five years, according to Robin Lake of the Washington-based Center for Reinventing Public Education, the number of challenged districts using a combination of operators, including charters, has increased.
Watkins' plan calls for closing three school buildings he said are underutilized, as well as the district's administration building.
The Columbus and Stetser Schools will close as soon as December. The Smedley STEM High School building will be closed and its students and programs will be housed in their own space at Chester High School, as will district administrative staff. Some classes will grow.
Watkins said the district will "rightsize" staff, shedding about 70 positions during this and the next school year. However, he said staff could be called back if the student body grows with new and returning students lured by improved academic programs.
The plan also calls for teachers to contribute to their health-care costs and placing a limit on district contributions. The teachers will also be subject to the state's new evaluation process.
Watkins said his proposal calls for seeking private funding to add programs, including day care for students' children, expanded after-school and summer programs, and staff development.
He wants the district to sell some buildings for a projected $2 million and is calling for retaining a recruiting firm to help hire a superintendent and a chief financial officer who will each commit to serving at least three years.
He recommended increasing property taxes and seeking state funds to help pay for initiatives such as capital improvements at the high school, marketing, administrative recruiting, and school board training.