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Special ed funding at heart of Chester Upland fight

Protestors walking along a sidewalk holding signs.
Photo: Laura Benshoff/WHYY

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Delaware County Court of Common Pleas Judge Chad Kenney is hearing arguments on a state-led plan to fix the Chester Upland School District’s long-standing budget woes.

Without the plan, according to Gov. Wolf and other proponents, the district will not have enough money to operate for full school year and may not open on Sept. 2.

Last week, Wolf — along with the state-appointed receiver Francis V. Barnes — introduced a five-point strategy to eliminate the Chester Upland School District’s $24 million deficit and "right Chester Upland’s sinking financial ship."

The cornerstone of the state’s plan is reducing tuition payments the district pays to send special education student to charter schools. According to Chester Upland’s most recent school performance profile, 4,224 students attend charters and 2,985 go to District-run schools.

Over the last five years, special education tuition rates for students in charter schools have increased from $23,000 per student to $40,000 per student, according to Barnes. Rates for regular education stayed stable at about $10,000, he testified Monday.

The other changes include slashing cyber charter payments to $5,959 per student to reflect what the Wolf administration says are the true costs of educating a child online. They are also demanding a forensic audit, hiring a financial turnaround specialist to refinance some of Chester Upland’s existing debt, and partial forgiveness of a $10 million loan from the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

With these changes, Chester Upland would not only eliminate its deficit, but would become financially solvent, Barnes testified.

The bulk of the savings comes from the reduction of special education tuition, nearly $20 million, most of it from Chester Community Charter School.

Four lawyers representing various charter schools — both cyber and brick-and-mortar — that serve Chester Upland students took turns trying to poke holes in the state’s tuition calculations.

Nearly half of a six-hour hearing was devoted to understanding special education funding for charter school students.

Read the rest of this story at NewsWorks

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