A Delaware County Court judge ruled Tuesday that the Chester Upland School District must abide by the state's charter school funding formula and keep paying the charter schools that now educate about half of the struggling district's students.
After a hearing that stretched over two days, Judge Chad Kenney said the commonwealth's plan was "wholly inadequate" to restore the district to financial stability. He also faulted the state's and district's lawyers as failing to provide "meaningful specifics or details" as to how they arrived at the plan.
Kenney did approve two smaller requests: He said the district could hire a turnaround specialist and a forensic auditor.
The ruling was a setback for the Wolf administration and the district's state-appointed receiver, Frances Barnes, who had contended that Chester Upland schools might not be able to open next week without a change to the formula. It was not clear if they would appeal Kenney's ruling.
In a statement late Tuesday, Wolf called the plan a "drastic, but necessary, corrective action to fix a massive budget deficit that has put the district in danger of not opening."
"Judge Kenney's decision to reject necessary reforms to the special education rates paid by the school district to its charter schools will unfortunately allow a decades-old problem to persist, and the district's massive budget deficit will only worsen," Wolf said. "It is clear serious financial reforms are still needed, and my administration will evaluate its options moving forward."
Wolf's lawyers had portrayed Chester Upland's struggles as unique, although critics had suggested that the case was part of a broader attack against charter schools by the governor. Representatives from the charter schools challenged the school district's claims about their costs, and testified that if the payments were cut, they might have to close.
The district pays local charter schools about $64 million in tuition payments - more than it gets in state aid - to educate about half of its 7,000 students.
Wolf administration lawyers had asked the judge to approve a new recovery plan that would cut payments to charter schools by as much as $24 million in the forthcoming school year, and would enable Chester Upland to shed crippling debt.
"The students and the parents shouldn't have to deal with this every year," Wolf's spokesman, Jeff Sheridan, said Tuesday before a school board meeting in Chester. "This has persisted under Republican and Democratic governors from the early 1990s."
The lawyers had argued that the biggest flaw in the funding formula was the reimbursement for children determined to need special education. Chester Upland's per-pupil cost of such students is more than $40,000, and its special-ed enrollment is about 50 percent higher than the statewide average.
The charter representatives testified that the new recovery plan could be devastating. Donald Delson, president of the board of trustees of Chester Charter School for the Arts, said the school was willing to negotiate the allotment for special-education students, which he agreed was high. But if the proposed cuts were approved, he said, he would recommend that his school close next year.
During final arguments late Tuesday, the judge peppered a Department of Education lawyer with skeptical questions.
"Why does the governor not go to the legislature and ask for $20.6 million in his budget for Chester Upland?" the judge asked James Flandreau.
Rocco Imperatrice, attorney for the Widener Partnership Charter School, noted in his closing that the district had failed to provide details on the cost of educating its own special-education students. That was a point Kenney called "significant."
The hearing was wrapping up around the time that about 200 people on both sides of the argument - from Chester's traditional public schools and charter school proponents - were gathering for a school board meeting at Chester High School.
Many left before the ruling was released, but not before using the public comment session to unleash frustration and opinions for and against slashing charter school funding.
The overwhelming message was that Chester students - no matter where they go to school - need help.
"It's not about us against them," said John Shelton, dean of students at Toby Farms Elementary School. "We have a formula that's not working for our district."
While a victory for teachers such as Heidi Tucker, an eighth-grade teacher at Chester Community Charter School, the biggest charter school in the district, larger issues still loom.
"I was here nine or 10 years ago, dealing with the exact same issue, with the exact same pitting of community schools against each other," said Tucker, who is also a parent. "We keep going around and around, and you keep coming up with the same solutions to the same dead problem."