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Chester Upland looking to community partnerships

In a spring when school districts across the region are digging deeper for spending cuts, the Chester Upland School District is considering a downright daunting move - shedding 40 percent of its teachers next school year.

In a spring when school districts across the region are digging deeper for spending cuts, the Chester Upland School District is considering a downright daunting move - shedding 40 percent of its teachers next school year.

Facing a budget reduction of almost 20 percent, the Delaware County district might also cut support staff 50 percent. The average class size would go from 21 to 35.

On May 25, the school board passed a budget plan that outlined, but did not fill in, the cuts.

The final spending plan will be passed before June 30; no date has been set for the vote. But parents and other district residents are coming to grips with the bleak outlook spurred by expected sharp cuts in state aid.

At a community forum attended by about 35 Wednesday night, acting Superintendent Joyce Wells told residents and some district teachers that "we feel it is our sacred responsibility to take care of our children."

Asked whether the proposed cuts would drive parents into charter schools, she said that if the cuts went through, "we would probably have to be very creative in how we educate our children. But our hope is that our parents will have enough faith that we can provide them with a quality education that they will stay with us."

Wells told the audience that "cuts will be pervasive - in every area" - and that the district was looking for "community partnerships to preserve as many programs as we can." She said after the meeting that she was not prepared to outline the district's plan in more detail.

The 4,245-student Chester Upland district has few of the resources its wealthier neighbors have. With high poverty, the district has depended on state aid for just more than two-thirds of its budget the last few years, by far the highest percentage in the Philadelphia area and one of the highest in the state.

If proposed state funding cuts go through, Chester Upland officials would have few options other than staff reductions to balance the budget.

The size of the discussed staffing changes stands in stark contrast to what other districts in the region plan. The Philadelphia School District is considering cutting 10.5 percent of the teaching staff. Another cash-strapped suburban district, Bristol Township, is weighing a 5 percent cut in teaching staff.

Chester Upland's proposals have parents wondering about the district's future.

In an interview, Chester resident Myeshia Foster, the mother of an eighth grader and a 10th grader, voiced the fear on many minds: "How is our district going to survive?"

She added: "There is barely any support staff as it is, and they barely have enough teachers as it is. Are the kids going to be teaching themselves?"

Christina Wilmer, the mother of two district high school students, said after the Wednesday meeting that if the cuts went through, "this is the end of the world for us. We're not making the grade as it is." She added: "There's nowhere to go but to the bottom."

If the cuts do come, said Gloria Zoranski, president of the teachers union, the district's 332 teachers and 104 support staff "will do our best. That's all I can say. That's our job."

But "it's not going to be easy. It will be tough going."

Paul Gottlieb, a Pennsylvania State Education Association staffer who works with the district's staff, was more downbeat. "Can you run a school district with hardly any teachers and support staff?" he wrote in an e-mail. "I don't think you can."

The roots of the district's struggles can be found in the economic woes besetting Chester City, Upland Borough, and Chester Township, the three municipalities that make up the district.

Chester, once an industrial and commercial hub, is a center of poverty. Its population of 34,000 is just more than half what it was in the heyday after World War II. About 36 percent of city residents live in poverty, and 62 percent of students in the district are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch programs.

Much of the industry and most of the stores have departed, leaving a largely low-income population. Many are renters and do not pay school taxes, further squeezing the small middle class that remains. The city was declared financially distressed in 1995. Host-city payments from a casino and a soccer stadium have eased the financial troubles somewhat, but none of that money goes to the district.

The district has the highest tax rate in Delaware County, and no tax increase is planned for next year. School board officials have said tax hikes would only drive out more homeowners and net little in additional revenue.

Because of proposed education cuts from Harrisburg, the district is looking at the loss of $21.6 million in state funding - 19 percent of its budget for this year. That is the highest per-pupil amount to be cut in the state, according to figures compiled this year by the Education Law Center in Philadelphia.

The Corbett administration wants to reduce the state's main subsidy for school districts, and that would take a $4.3 million bite out of Chester Upland.

But by far the biggest proposed cut for Chester Upland is from the state's reimbursement for the district's charter school payments.

More than half its students in kindergarten to eighth grade attend charter schools in Chester. Chester Upland must pay the educational cost for those students. The proposed budget allocates $39.4 million - 43 percent of the total amount and more than double what it would spend on teachers' salaries and benefits - for those payments.

Last year, the state reimbursed Chester Upland for $11.1 million of those costs. The Corbett administration has eliminated all charter school reimbursements from its proposed state budget for 2011-12, so as it stands, the district would get no help with the charter payments.

The district, though showing some academic improvements in recent years, is still close to the bottom in the state, with six of its nine schools failing to meet state standards on tests last year. At Chester High School last year, only 7.2 percent of 11th graders performed at or above grade level on the annual state math test; 23.9 percent met the mark in reading. Both charter schools in the district met state standards last year in math and reading.