WEST CHESTER (January 18) – Senator Dinnimian issued the following statement on financial crisis in the Chester Upland School District:

“After months of asking the Department of Education and the Corbett Administration for their plan to address the precarious financial situation facing many of our Commonwealth’s school districts, I was surprised and taken aback by the recent actions of the Department in relation to the Chester-Upland School District.

The Department’s announcement in the middle of the school year that it would not provide an advance of its basic education subsidy funds in order for the district to continue operating was unexpected and shocking.  This denial created a situation of utter chaos in one of the poorest school districts in Pennsylvania.

Some may think that the General Assembly is late to the table on this issue.  To the contrary, my staff, along with staff of Education and Appropriations Committees in all four caucuses met with the Department of Education and the Governor’s Office in late spring of 2011 to begin discussions on possible legislative approaches for districts currently in fiscal distress and those on the edge of falling into fiscal distress. 

During the initial meeting, all four caucuses made it very clear that any legislation needed to address the broader issue and not just focus on one or two school districts.  A plan of action was needed that looked to identify those districts that were teetering between fiscal life and death, and strategies developed to prevent them from sinking further into a financial black hole.  Measures were necessary to deal with those districts that were already struggling so that they did not fall into the cycle of continued financial morass that currently face two of the Commonwealth’s poorest districts – Duquesne and Chester-Upland have spent the greater part of the last two decades under some means of State control and both continue to be on the brink of total dissolution.

Throughout the remainder of the summer and during the fall, my staff continuously asked the Department for an update, only to get no response or simply “we’re working on it.”  It was only on January 13th, after another request by my staff on January 12th, that a copy of the fall draft proposal was received.  How strange it was, that at 8:00 p.m. on a Friday evening over the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend that after nearly six months of asking, I finally received a response. And what a response it was!

This draft clearly indicates, in my opinion, the direction the Department and Administration plan to take for all districts facing similar financial difficulties.  It does nothing to right the financial health of these fiscally distressed districts or to provide quality education for any students.  It establishes new powers and responsibilities for Special Boards of Control in school districts that have been declared to be in fiscal distress under section 691(a) of the School Code for five or more consecutive years, or school districts who have been governed by a Special Board of Control under section 692 within the past five years and is once again declared to be in a state of fiscal distress under section 691(a). 

Under these parameters, this legislative proposal applies to the Duquesne City School District and the Chester-Upland School District. However, it creates a potential framework for those districts nearing a declaration of financial distress to face the same plight after five years under the direction of a State Board of Control, while providing no real plans or mechanisms to bring any districts to financial sustainability.

These expanded powers mirror many of the same powers granted to the Philadelphia School Reform Commission.  The Special Board of Control would have the ability to cancel contracts, convert district schools to charter schools, reassign or suspend staff, enter into agreements with other school districts to accept district students on a tuition basis, close or reconstitute schools and remove certain items – such as a longer school day and school year and prohibiting strikes – from the collective bargaining process. 

The draft also sets forth an extremely unsound tuition rate that other school districts and charter schools would be required to accept for district students, but also at the same time does not require that the other school district or charter school accept any student from the fiscally distressed school district.

I believe this reduced per pupil tuition rate to be severely flawed.  The proposal creates a rate that will do nothing to encourage neighboring school districts – even where there is the capacity to take students – to accept students.  Such a low rate – likely to be between $2,000 – $3,000 per pupil – unfairly shifts the costs of educating the student to the taxpayers of the receiving school district. Existing charter schools would also likely balk.  It does nothing to encourage quality charter operators to want to work with the district on converting district schools into charter schools. 

Students remaining in the district will face even more academic difficulties than they are currently facing.  In essence, instead of encouraging fiscally and academically strong educational programs, this proposal pushes forward the establishment of a cut-rate, K-mart type education for our most vulnerable children. In addition, the Corbett Plan will make the public schools in the poorest and most fiscally distressed districts such second-class schools that vouchers will not provide a realistic answer to the thousands of students who are forced to attend these schools. 

This proposal appears to undercut the support the Administration says it has for the establishment of a voucher program aimed at the same students in these fiscally distressed districts.  No matter what alternative forms of education are available the vast majority of students will attend public schools.  The Corbett plan will only further result in increasing a separate and unequal education system based on the wealth or poverty of a district. 

While I have always opposed a statewide voucher plan because vouchers are unnecessary in the wealthier and academically successful schools in Pennsylvania, what appears to clearly be the Corbett Administration’s plan for the poorest schools makes vouchers of no value in these schools.  I have remained steadfast in my commitment to find pathways to provide children in our poorest – not only economically, but also educationally – communities with the educational opportunities that are oftentimes taken for granted by most of our Commonwealth’s school children. In Pennsylvania, unfortunately, we have an educational system that remains separate and unequal.

All of our very limited resources in this difficult economy need to be used to improve and support the public schools which the vast majority of our students attend.  A logical extension of this proposal is the closure and dissolution of these school districts.  This, however, is shortsighted in that it completely ignores our constitutional and moral responsibility to these children and their communities.

That is why I will not vote for even limited vouchers or any other types of vouchers when SB 1 or any other voucher legislation is returned from the House to the Senate.  While I might have been fooled once I will not be fooled again after reviewing what I believe to be the true implications of the Corbett Administration’s approach to the Chester-Upland and Duquesne City School Districts and by implication all the other poor and fiscally distressed districts.

It is clear to me and I believe others that the Governor and the Pennsylvania Department of Education want to destroy public education in the poorest districts and we all must not allow this to happen. ”