With a candlelight vigil, orange ribbons, calls to organize, and vows to fight on, Chester Upland School District residents and board members said Thursday night that they would not allow their schools to close and their students to go without an education.
The Delaware County district has no money and no immediate prospects for getting any. It owes millions to creditors, can't meet its payroll, and needs more than $20 million to finish the school year. Teachers and other staff members have said they would work without pay for as long as they could after Wednesday, when they will not get checks due them.
School board members and residents blame the crisis on state education cuts and the expense of paying for students in charter schools; state officials say the district has misspent its money and has only itself to blame.
With several hundred people spilling out the doors at a jam-packed school board meeting, Board President Wanda Mann said to loud applause: "We're not going to throw up our hands and let our kids go to the street. . . . We will not let the governor do that."
Several people called for responses ranging from sit-ins at legislators' offices to rallies in Harrisburg. At a prayer session before the meeting, the Rev. William McLaurin called on students to have "the courage to stand together for what is right" and to "keep hope alive." Resident Debbie Byrd handed out orange ribbons - orange is one of the school colors - as "a symbol of our determination."
The meeting ended in discord, however, as Mann adjourned after only about 20 minutes. She said that few people had signed up to speak at the meeting and that the financial crisis had not been on the board's agenda.
Several students from the district's Science and Discovery High School demanded to be heard. One said that students there were getting little meaningful education already, with many classes amounting only to study halls.
"You're not trying hard enough. You're not listening," Kashay Taylor, a junior, told the board.
And community activist Tina Johnson scolded board members for not having reached out earlier to mobilize residents. "We have to gather our community together and say, 'Not here,' " she said to loud applause.
Johnson called on residents to attend a meeting Monday at Chester Eastside Ministries, on the city's East Side. Mann said she would be there.
Mann and many residents thanked the teachers for their dedication to the students. And several of the 60 or so teachers at the meeting said they would continue to work as long as they could afford to.
"It's stressful," Colleen Wellstein, a third-grade teacher at the Chester Upland School of the Arts, said after the meeting. "But we're doing everything we always do. We haven't skipped a beat."
Wellstein, a single parent with four children, added: "There will come a time when we will have to make difficult decisions," if no money can be found and the teachers don't have the ability to stay on without pay. "I pray we will reach a solution before then."