ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
A small school system near Philadelphia is on the verge of going broke. The Chester Upland District has only enough money to pay its staff and remain open for a couple of weeks.
As we hear from Elizabeth Fiedler of member station WHYY, parents, students and teachers in the district are waiting to see what happens.
ELIZABETH FIEDLER, BYLINE: Last month, Chester Upland warned its teachers it was running out of money because of state budget cuts and rising payments to charter schools. Danyel Jennings, a Chester Upland parent, says she was shocked to learn teachers agreed to keep working temporarily without pay if the district couldn't meet payroll.
DANYEL JENNINGS: I think it's really admirable that teachers are willing to - they're that dedicated to educating that they would go, you know what, this is going to be hard on my family, but because I want these children to have a really good chance, I'm going to stay.
FIEDLER: That hasn't happened yet. In January, the Chester Upland School Board filed a federal lawsuit against the state of Pennsylvania to force the state to provide more funding. A federal judge ordered the state to give the district a $3.2 million advance to keep schools open, while district officials and lawmakers search for a long-term solution to the district's financial problems. District officials said the money would allow it to meet payroll for a few weeks, but it needs about $20 million to make it through the end of the school year.
Chester Upland's money problems run deep. It was already carrying about $10 million in debt from past years when it was hit with a 14 percent reduction in this year's budget.
Paul Gottlieb is with the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the union that represents Chester Upland teachers.
PAUL GOTTLIEB: The governor's cutting 866 million bucks from the state education budget was the trigger that basically permitted or enabled the school district to fall flat on its face. Chester Upland gets approximately 70 percent of its revenue from the state.
FIEDLER: Chester Upland has one of the highest student poverty rates in Pennsylvania. Because of its ongoing financial problems, the district was placed under state control from 1994 through 2010. And on top of that, in December, the Chester Upland Community Charter School, which teaches about 45 percent of the district students, sued the Chester Upland District and the state for millions of dollars it said it was owed.
At a recent town hall meeting, parents and community leaders packed the room even though it was a weekday morning. Many spoke passionately about their love of the district and their frustration with the current predicament. State Senator Dominic Pileggi said he wants to know how the district ended up in such a financial hole.
STATE SENATOR DOMINIC PILEGGI: I can tell you, there's no appetite, there's no appetite to just simply keep sending money without accountability.
FIEDLER: Pileggi listened to the crowd, but didn't offer any immediate solutions.
PILEGGI: I think we ought to just keep all options open until we decide what the best way for the children is. And whatever that becomes, that's what I'm going to be for, and I'm not going to be pre-judge it.
FIEDLER: One concerned parent at the meeting, Chester High grad India Rodriguez, says she wants the district to rebound. But she's not staking her son's education on it. She just pulled him out of the district and put him in private school.
INDIA RODRIGUEZ: I just don't want to wait for the worst that can happen to happen, whereas one day they're like, you know, don't send your child to school. There's no school for him to go to.
FIEDLER: State officials, including Governor Tom Corbett, say they are working to keep the district open at least until the end of the school year, but they haven't said exactly how. A district spokesman says right now the district may not be able to pay teachers and support staff on February 15th. A federal judge has ordered the state and the district to try to resolve the situation by February 10th.
For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Fiedler in Philadelphia.
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