It was a day for traditions as the new school year opened in the cash-strapped Chester Upland School District this morning - for good and for bad.
At 7:30 a.m. Wednesday, hundreds of students, teachers, staff, and others gathered outside Chester High School for an annual rite - a bell-ringing ceremony that celebrates the start of classes and the perseverance of a district in almost perpetual crisis.
As the chimes faded, teachers in the Delaware County district walked past the orange and black balloons and returned to classrooms to confront less-cherished traditions, almost as predictable in Chester Upland as back-to-school shopping ads: fiscal chaos, and not knowing when their next paychecks will come.
With state education aid frozen by the two-month-old budget stalemate in Harrisburg, and a Wolf administration plan to sharply reduce Chester Upland's payments to charter schools rejected in court, unionized teachers and staff have voted to work without paychecks pending resolution of the crisis.
After opening the doors at Chester High, officials moved to Toby Farms School, where they were joined by Chester Mayor John Linder and others.
In a social media twist on the district's money woes, a Chester resident - city health official Leasa Nichols - has started a page on the GoFundMe website seeking to raise as much as $1 million in donations to pay teachers and staff.
As of this morning, 36 people had donated a total of $1,285 in amounts as large as $100.
"There's a lot of great kids that come out to Chester!!!. . .every little bit helps," wrote a $50 donor, Tamara Jones. "Do it for our kids' future."
"When I saw it, I was ... 'that's a lot of money,' " said Dariah Jackson, spokesman for the Chester Upland Education Association, the teachers' union.
"It could be used for the students, it could be used for a plethora of things. I think it's cool that people in the community are showing their support to set up an account and use it for the school district."
But the money in the GoFundMe account is about $21,998,715 less than the shortfall that state officials, including state-appointed receiver Frances Barnes, project for the 2015-16 school year. That represents about 15 percent of the district's $139 million annual budget.
That prediction is based on the district's receiving increased state aid in the budget proposed by Gov. Wolf, a plan stalled in legislative gridlock. About 3,400 Chester Upland students attend traditional schools.
Without the state checks that normally arrive during the summer, more than just teachers and staff wonder when and where the money will come from.
Charter schools in the district - including the largest, Chester Community Charter School - also opened their doors to about 3,800 students Wednesday morning citing a massive hole in their budgets because of the lack of state and local dollars.
David Clark, the CEO of Chester Community, which educates approximately 3,000 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, said in a statement Tuesday that the publicly funded, privately managed school was opening on time even though it had not received a monthly reimbursement check from the Chester Upland district since March, and started its fiscal year in July owed more than $5 million, according to its calculations. Overall, he said, the district's charter schools will be owed more than $20 million by week's end.
Clark said in his statement that "charter schools are not part of the problem, they are part of the solution. Charters are providing a better education with less funding. Their continued operation in an unfunded state clearly demonstrates their commitment to the students of Chester."
The Wolf administration maintains that a flawed system for reimbursing schools such as Chester Community for special-education classes, as well as for financing online cyber charter schools, is the biggest factor in Chester Upland's financial crisis.
But its request to reduce the district's charter-school payments by $24.7 million - from about $64 million - for the coming year was rejected last week by Delaware County Court Judge Chad F. Kenney.
In December, Kenney had rebuffed the state's efforts to remove then-receiver Joe Watkins and replace him with Barnes. Watkins, a longtime Republican consultant and activist, left voluntarily in June. Kenney wrote in last week's ruling that changing the formula for charter school reimbursement is a job for state lawmakers, who established it in 1997.
Wolf's spokesman, Jeff Sheridan, said that no decision had been made on whether to appeal Kenney's ruling to Commonwealth Court and that the administration was working with Barnes to figure out a next move in the funding crisis.
Even with Chester Upland largely insolvent, Jackson, the teachers' union spokesman, said no employees had considered abandoning their posts as classes resumed.
"No one asked what would happen if we didn't show up," Jackson said. "It's not just the teachers. Everyone in the district is working without pay, support staff, custodian, nurses, principals . . . the superintendent."
At a convocation last week, Superintendent Gregory Shannon joined the union leaders and others on stage to express solidarity in a time of crisis.
"We appreciate the unions' willingness to work with us in this difficult time," Shannon said, according to a release from the union after the convocation.